Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Disability and Seeing Others from the Inside Out

"Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you." Ephesians 4:32 (MSG)

"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you." Colossians 3:12-13 (NIV)

"But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look at the way he looks on the outside or how tall he is, because I have not chosen him. For the Lord does not look at the things man looks at. A man looks at the outside of a person, but the Lord looks at the heart.'" 1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)


Stories abound of cruel notes left on vehicles parked in handicapped spots. These notes shame the disabled, call them names, accuse them of laziness or question, "Where's your wheelchair?" And all while a handicap permit is clearly displayed.

The disabilities of the drivers are varied: auto-immune disease, chronic pain, amputation, and so on.

To the casual observer, these people don't appear disabled. Yet the disabilities and diseases are quite real.

Invisible Disabilities

My son's autism is similar.

He looks like everyone else. There is absolutely no visible manifestation of his disability. Although I notice quirky things in his movement, and recognize the physical symptoms of sensory seeking, to most people he seems fine.

Except for the behavior.

With his diagnosis, the behavior IS the disability.

His brain operates differently than most people's. He perceives things differently. His senses are heightened in a way most people can't begin to fathom. He struggles with being in constant hyper-awareness mode, always ready to fight or run. It's not something he does on purpose. It's the way he's wired.

It's why we spend so much time and money teaching him how to adapt, how to work with his body to relax, how to relate to other people in a common and socially acceptable way. It's always hard, because he's having to retrain his brain.

The disability is invisible.

Which leads me to the point of this post: just because you can't see something, that doesn't make it any less real.

When the Outside Doesn't Match the Inside

There was an incident at church a while back when my son gobbled up five donuts. He knows he isn't supposed to eat that many. Yet he did anyway.

At the time, I was in choir practice and my husband was at home with our daughter who was sick. And since I wasn't watching over him like a hawk, Travis ate five donuts and got away with it.

Later that morning, a lady approached me and told me about the incident. I smiled and apologized, then told her I would put extra money in the donation jar to cover the cost. I expected to move on. But she continued telling me how he was a problem, how his behavior during worship was an issue, and how she had been forced to move to the balcony from her usual seat because my son was a distraction.

My heart was pounding as she spoke, but I maintained my composure and played the autism card. I'd been here before. I figured she just didn't know.

I told her he was autistic, and though it wasn't an excuse for his behavior, it was something we were working on.

She didn't buy it. Her response was, "I know all about that disease and I know he has it. But you don't have it. Your other kids don't have it. Your husband doesn't have it."

Speechless, I walked off in tears.

It was a small blip in the grand scheme of things, but it was a big deal that day, making me ugly cry and question whether church was ever going to be something we could successfully do.

Here's the gist of it. She said she knew all about autism--"that disease"--as she called it. (By the way, it's not a disease, it's a disability.)

But she didn't really know. Because if she knew anything about autism, she would know that the behavior is the disability. It's neurological. Which means you can't see it on the outside, even though all kinds of stuff is going on inside the brain--stuff that affects behavior. The outside looks completely normal.

Seeing Others from the Inside Out

You never know what's going on in people's brains. You don't know how they struggle.

  • That lady didn't know all the heartache. 
  • She didn't know about the seizures. 
  • She didn't know about my anxiety and all the tears I've cried. 
If she'd known those things, I believe she would've responded differently.

She assumed it was bad behavior. Something that a spanking or lots of tough love could fix. I can assure you, if those things worked, we would've had this whole thing ironed out years ago.

It's easy to make assumptions, but it's dangerous.

This whole autism journey has forced me to step back and look at a bigger picture of what's going on in people's lives. I used to judge parents by their kids' behavior all the time. It was easy to blame the parents. Then I became one.

Now I know better.

So now I try to step back and observe. I recognize that I don't always know the truth. I don't know what's going on in the heart. Sure, the behavior might bother me, but I know there's more at stake than my temporary annoyance.

There are real people involved. Real hearts, real souls who are loved and cherished by God.

Slowly I'm learning to look beneath appearances and give others the benefit of the doubt.

Maybe even the donut lady.


Lord, teach us gentleness, sensitivity and grace. Clothe us with your garment of love. Help us in our dealings with others, even when we don't understand their actions. Give us wisdom to withhold judgment when we don't know the whole story. Teach us to see others as you do, looking not only at the outside, but deeper. . . to the very heart.

~Sheri Dacon

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