Written By Lydia Lee, Singapore
He was having a very bad day. Something in his routine had changed. He was screaming, crying, and dashing around, hitting out at tables, the walls, and even his forehead. As his distress level escalated, he started grabbing my shirt and pulling at my hair. When he scratched me amid the tugging, I held him at his wrists and said with a steady voice, “Ouch, it’s painful.”
That made him pause. Then he looked down at the ugly red scratch-mark on my hand and his consciousness returned to him. He looked at me and started to cry again—but this time for a different reason. Through his sobs he said, “Oh no! Teacher Lydia is sad, oh no!”
What he meant was that I was hurt. And because he knew he was the one who hurt me, he started crying.
In that moment, I did not register the pain from the scratch. Instead, I registered an ache in my heart for this child.
As a teacher for students with autism, I knew that this child’s condition had prevented him from being able to wrap his mind around a seemingly small change in his routine in order to respond in a rational way. As he became aware of the pain he had inflicted on me, his remorse rose, and I felt an ache for a child who fights a constant battle to align his actions with the empathy and care he has for those around him.
In October of 2017, after 13 years of striving to understand and connect with youths in Singapore to reach them for Jesus, God provided an opportunity for me to become a full-time special-education teacher at a local school for students with autism.
As I considered the opportunity, I thought of the Great Commission, where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19a). I was used to thinking of “all nations” as referring to people from different countries, people groups, ethnicities or cultures. But I don’t have to travel far. I realized that the children with autism who live among us, who seem so different and foreign, fall under the category of “all nations” too.
Unlike many of the distinctions above, autism bears no physical trait. You can’t tell from their physical features that a person is on the autism spectrum—but their inner world is vastly different to ours. Their world has a unique culture where routines and repetition rule, where visuals speak a million times louder than words, where literal language is king compared to metaphors and body expressions, and where a perfect environment would be when factors such as light, sound, and temperature are kept at a constant.
As I prayed through the decision, I felt challenged to apply the same effort I had with youth in my previous job, to a potentially less-understood and even less-valued group in our society. If I could understand their comfort zone and be willing to step into it even though it may be foreign to me, if I could speak their lingo with visuals they understand . . . perhaps then I could have the opportunity to introduce them to their Maker, to plant a seed about their Savior, and continue doing all of that until one day they come to know Him.
Accepting the position as a full-time special education teacher was my first step into a curious world—the beginning of a great adventure.
Making Sense of Autism
Autism is a curious condition. There are many different expert definitions. Some call it a disability, and others, a developmental disorder.
Characteristic to autism are traits such as over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensations such as sound, light, or touch. People with autism often have difficulty understanding social cues and reading expressions. Thus, their responses at times may seem inappropriate or offensive. They rely on routines and repetitive behaviors, and as a result, it is unbelievably difficult for them to cope with an ever-changing environment and constantly shifting relationships.
I think of people with autism as people who are just living under a different norm—be it intellectual, emotional, or social. Our world is not superior to theirs, merely different. It is akin to us visiting a foreign country with a vastly different culture. But because we do not understand their world, we could find their reactions or behaviors “disruptive” or “scary”. Interestingly, while we find their behaviors “scary”, what we may not realize is that they find us just as unpredictable and difficult to understand, and thus, also equally “scary” and “disruptive”.
Yet, if we embark on a goal to connect with them, the exploration can be fascinating and the discovery, wonderful! After all, God dwells in their world just the same as ours . . . we are just new to stepping in and discovering what God is doing in their space.
Learning From My Students with Autism
“Wow, to do this, you must need a lot of patience . . .”
This is the most common response I get whenever I share about my current work. From a smile to a nod, God reminded me to also clarify, “Teaching any child, or ministering to any person requires much patience from us, whether they are neurotypical or special.” And most recently, God has taught me to say, “Patience is a virtue.” That helps me to remember that in some ways, my students are teaching me more and even greater things than I can teach them.
For example, I knew that people with autism were generally described as being socially unaware or aloof in forming relationships. However, I had a student who proved this description wrong. Once, when he saw another student screaming, crying, and kicking around on the floor and thus had to be restrained by some teachers, he became very sad and cried. He grabbed my hand tightly, while sobbing and pointing at the student, he used all his strength to pull me over and urged me to help the child. In this case, he felt deep empathy for the upset child and desperately wanted to offer relief. He just did not know how.
My student displays such a high level of empathy and compassion that many neurotypicals may not have. In a way, his responses to people around him has caused me to slow down to consider the plight of others. His urge to have the situation resolved for the other student, and to go over and pat him on the head upon resolution, made me think that while it is often alright to walk away from a matter because it is being handled, it’s even better if we can stop and offer support . . . even if it’s just a word or an act of consolation. While I am able to teach this child hard skills like how to read and write, he in turn brought me to a place where I realized how much I fall short in having compassion for those around me.
Though the work with my students is greatly rewarding, there are naturally days when their behaviors and responses frustrate or baffle me. There are days where their child-like and unreserved comments make me laugh out loud. There are days where regardless of how much I try to be patient, understanding, and befriend them, they just cannot be pacified—apart from not receiving any reciprocation, I become the brunt of their anger instead. And for a lot of occupations, a “tough day at work” probably doesn’t include the heightened alertness you need to carry around to respond quickly and appropriately to any distressful situations.
The work is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. But when you are able to witness their first steps in learning a word, performing a daily living skill task independently, or even when they give you an eye contact and a smile, your heart is full and you won’t be recounting how hard it was but how joyful you are.
My hope is not in my strategies or strength, but in God who created these children in His image, and in the Holy Spirit who can access their minds and hearts the way I cannot. My hope is in Christ who gave me the Commission to “go”, to “make” disciples, to “teach” His commandments. So, when I feel the weight of the hard work I have before me, I pray. I plead with Christ to fill my heart with His love so I can love them more. I plead with the Spirit to help me know what is in their minds and hearts. I plead with God to grant me wisdom that I may know what the best thing for them is.
We’re not all called to invest in full-time occupations serving the special needs community. But we are all called to “love your neighbor as yourself”—the second commandment (Mark 10:31). So perhaps we could begin right there, to pray that our love for God would overflow to the people around us—so that we will not judge them by how they behave on the outside, which school they come from, how well they can speak, or how much they can contribute to society. Let us seek to love people with autism as Christ loves us.