I have a friend with a 3 year old, and every time I see that boy I can tell it’s just a matter of time before he gets an autism diagnosis. What baffles me is that despite pleadings from the 3 year old’s speech therapist and pediatrician to get him evaluated for autism, my friend insists that he is not autistic and that there is no need to have this done. Given that when Buddy was three I was jumping through hoops to get him screened just in case and I still feel bad and as though I didn’t do enough to get him in intensive services at an early age (Buddy was always right on that border where the diagnostician was worried about overdiagnosing him, until he turned 4 and the communication gap made it undeniable). My reasoning was it would be better to over treat him when he was younger than to delay and miss that golden time when the brain is most plastic and he would get the most benefit from therapy. Yet, it also really serves to show the difference between my worldview as an atheist and hers as an Evangelical Christian.
I hear so often in the south that living as an atheist is not possible. It will only get you so far. That you need God to take you through the hard times. Sometimes it seems as though people are waiting for a tragedy to befall upon me so that it will open up my eyes to how inadequate my belief system is. Think about that. It feels like people in my life want me to fail.
Let’s look at how my friend and I both approach a similar situation, though. Our sons, at the age of 3, were both experiencing developmental delays and engaged in behaviors typical of children on the autism spectrum.
A lot of Evangelicals I knew growing up were obsessed with appearing to be perfect. Anything less was to appear to be in disfavor with God. I had a friend growing up who struggled with a learning disability but refused to even get screened for services. Meanwhile, my parents were fighting for services for me with every breath they had.
In my atheistic family, there was this emphasis that there’s a lot of different ways to be human, and the school district only caters to a certain type of child. I was outside of the box. I never saw being mildly autistic or having several learning disabilities as a moral failing. It meant I processed the world differently and needed some environmental modifications to reach my full potential, and as I grew older I outgrew the need for a lot of those modifications. I went through junior high, high school, college and grad school without assistance.
A lot of Evangelical stress prayer and believe in miracles. I don’t believe in either of those things. If things are going to get better, one has to work to make it better.
So basically when I was pregnant, given my genetic history, I knew there was a risk that I could have an autistic child, and when I learned I was having a boy I knew that risk became greater. And since I don’t believe in praying and hoping things work out, I started researching early autism warning signs and found a pediatrician who would work with me. We had Buddy in speech and OT therapy from the time he was 18 months, a time when people would tell me I was crazy for worrying about whether or not he was autistic.
For my friend, even considering the possibility that her son could be autistic is so painful she simply shuts down. While she does have him in speech therapy, I can attest how speech therapy isn’t enough. Tying the health and wellbeing of one’s children to a belief in being in favor with God seems to be a way of preventing said child from getting the help and assistance they need.
Being aware of warning signs, finding experts who will work with me, and viewing autism as just a different way of being human are not exclusive to being an atheist, and my Christian husband certainly follows those steps. For me, preparing for probable scenarios gets me a lot farther than praying that they won’t happen. And moving forward without the moral stigma of wondering if my son is autistic because I displeased God or because of karma or whatever is certainly a lot easier than carrying that weight.