This I Believe

Helena - Centennial, Colorado
Entered on December 17, 2006

I believe when someone is diagnosed with a disability, it’s a sign that someone needs to change. Understandably, most people usually pursue treating a disorder or illness with the belief that the primary individual affected will then lead a more full and satisfying life. Maybe the patient is not always the one who needs changing.

Our 12-year-old son, Kevin, has Autism. When he was first diagnosed at age 2, we began a lengthy course of intensive therapies. By age 3 ½ he began saying his first words. He learned to play and talk with others, ski, swim, and draw amazing pictures. His artwork is now breathtaking and he loves rock climbing. Despite so much progress, some elements of Kevin’s disorder remain intractable. As a neuropsychologist who treats complex disorders, it is often hard to cope with the reality that some recover while others remain permanently affected by their disorder like Kevin.

Early one Saturday morning, my husband stumbled downstairs and the house seemed strangely cold. Shortly he discovered a wide open window where our son had obviously exited earlier that morning. Kevin is not a good sleeper and, like that day, he sometimes gets up at 4 or 5. After playing around the house for a while Kev probably got bored. All our doors have key-locks and chimes to remind Kevin to tell us when he wants to go somewhere. Like most with Autism, Kevin has difficulty taking another person’s perspective and it rarely occurs to him that his parents will worry if they don’t know where he is.

Since Kevin had wandered before, we knew the drill; I jumped out of bed and threw on any clothes. Swapping brief instructions about where each of us would look, my husband and I armed ourselves with cell phones and raced out to look for our child. My mind lurched into the sea of worry and speculation. How long had he been gone? Was he just on our street or somewhere much further?

Wearing only a t-shirt in the Colorado winter, Kevin drank in this time of rare independence and went exploring the tall buildings he loves. He was spotted on the roof of a 5-story condo complex and then apparently discovered he can ride lightrail for free to visit the skyscrapers downtown. He was ultimately handcuffed hours later about 25 miles from our home.

In the aftermath of pain and fear, I find hope in returning to my belief that God may not cure all illnesses or disabilities because He invites others to change. As Kevin’s deficiencies glare at me with polished luster, I expect I will become still warmer, more patient, and compassionate in response. Perhaps some of the dozens of rescue personnel who assisted that day or persons who meet Kevin elsewhere may also experience renewed appreciation for their own gifts and similarly offer more kindness and love. The hope of such transformation in others, I believe, is why people with disabilities are not always the ones who change.