“NO, Peter! You are not an animal!” I cried, as I brandished a towel like a whip to drive my son away from the food. He had that crazed “raw amygdala” gleam in his eye that I have seen on too many occasions, as he bit into a family-sized apple strudal that he’d lifted whole from the platter. I returned the strudal to the platter, only to protest in dismay as Peter snatched a sizzling sausage from the pan with lightening speed. “Stop it! Stop it! Peter, I told you we were having breakfast after Mass!”
We’d already had a long history that Sunday morning. I had to play tug-of-war with Peter to get the bedcovers off, then had to hang the goggles he loves to tap on the thermostat in the hallway so he’d have to get out of bed to get them. I had to set the timer twice for him to finish his bathroom routine. Even so, he refused to get dressed till I’d fetched the black underwear his rigidity demanded be exchanged for the white one I had previously laid out. It was getting so late by that time, that I didn’t even protest, but just ran to make the extra roundtrip to his bedroom clothes drawers.
Getting from the church parking lot to the front door was another struggle. Peter tends to grab my arm and lean hard upon it. I was so frustrated with him, that I shook him loose. I dashed a few paces ahead of him, saying, “Come on, Peter! You know Peggy (one of Peter’s therapists) keeps saying you should practice walking independently.” I kept walking ahead of him, pausing every ten feet for him to slowly catch up.
By the time we made it into the side chapel, we were really late, and had missed nearly half of Mass. I was so upset with his impulsivity and inertia that I didn’t even want to look at him. But when I turned to my Missalette, I saw the responsorial psalm of the day, “Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me.” (Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13)
I felt convicted in my soul. What was I doing, punishing my son with my attitude? He didn’t ask for autism. It’s not his fault that his prefrontal cortex doesn’t have the ready connections to the amygdala that neurotypicals have (NIMH study by Richey and Dichter, Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder, Jan 2015); neither is the miswired circuitry through the basal ganglia causing rigidity and inertia voluntary in the least. But it was Peter who took the initiative. Taking the keyboard, he typed,
Peter: i asdm sorry mom forf everyything.
Mom: I’m sorry too. will you forgive me for the towel and unkind words?
Peter: yes., i actedc badly. i’ll try to do bettter.
Mom: Thanks, Peter, so shall I. Love you.
Peter: i love you too
The rest of Mass flew by. Freed from the heavy angry feeling I carried before, my heart felt light and joyful. My sweet, humble son had not only forgiven me, but had asked for forgiveness, for behavior that was not even his fault, but due to autism. Autism is a heavy cross our children carry. I should be helping Peter carry his cross, but how often do I instead add to it by blaming him for behaviors he can’t control? When he really can’t help it, blaming him for them is like blaming him for having autism, like blaming him for having this cross to carry. I am sorry, Lord. I looked down at the beautiful words on the pages of my Missalette again.Pointing to Psalm 51, I showed them to Peter.
Mom: Beautiful words, aren’t they? They are the words of a famous psalm by King David. Pretty cool that the same words written thousands of years ago express the longings of our hearts even now.
Peter: just marvelous. thanks mom, for making the words real for me.Mom: Peter, you are the one who makes them real for me!
Peter: dear jesusm, may we honor you with our lives and minds, and hearts, amen i thank you for helping me just helping mom hagve gtrace (have grace). amen
Mom: and Peter too! Amen!
Forgiveness. It’s a beautiful thing. It gives life to the dead, and makes all things new. It’s so elementary, we forget about it. Every good parenting book I’ve ever read from Noel Janis-Norton to Dan Siegel talks over and over about how restorative and critical it is for parents to repair rifts in their relationships with their children. How there’s no better way to walk them through the process of asking for, giving, and receiving forgiveness than to demonstrate it in real life situations. How it’s such a great opportunity to grow the children (and oneself!) in perspective taking, problem solving, and emotional understanding. How it makes everyone and the relationship even better and more resilient. But at the time I read all that, I just said to myself at the time, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know.”
But at that moment in the chapel the rubber finally hit the road. It shouldn’t, but for me it took supernatural grace to say those words, “Will you forgive me?” When I did, it was like opening a door. I felt a mighty rush of a river of grace, love, and forgiveness from Peter. He was waiting for the opportunity. He was just waiting for me to open the door. So I just wanted to pass on the encouragement I received from this experience to encourage you to open the door. Your children are waiting. They need to hear those healing words, and experience the joy of forgiving and being forgiven, a process that is beautiful, even life-giving to a relationship.
It doesn’t even need to happen right away. It’s never too late. We all need time to reflect. When rifts occur, it’s hard to take in the whole situation at the time. That’s okay. The important thing is not to shy away from reflecting upon and confronting the challenges in our lives, including negative interactions with our kids. So don’t be afraid to go back and recollect; take the time and effort to do so. It’s not just my experience, but on talking with other parents it seems that our children may be the most forgiving people on the planet towards us. They want so much to forgive us because they love us so. So if one messes up, or if there’s a misunderstanding, don’t despair. You can always repair. which leads to restoration and respect. Just open the door.
Thanks be to God and our Savior Jesus Christ for the great gift of forgiveness!
Happy Easter to all!