Breakthrough. How Autism teaches me the Gospel.

open gatesWeek after week the toddler fought me. Our hours together were punctuated with severe meltdowns. Kicking, screaming, biting, and hitting: these were the norms (his, of course). I left each session emotionally and physically drained, weighted by sadness.

This little boy could not comprehend that I wanted good things for him. Sometimes he fought in anger, but sometimes he fought because he couldn’t make sense of his world. There is a fine line between a meltdown and a tantrum; the line is often blurry.

A family member struggled to understand, “Why is he so stubborn? Why doesn’t he just stop?” 

But he can’t stop. He doesn’t know how to help himself.

A developmental disconnect akin to a shorted circuit makes typical situations overwhelming. Slight changes in routine seem monumental and devastating, the result of an extreme preoccupation with rigidity.

Trust is not a part of his natural repertoire.

Week after week I sought him, reinforcing expectations through repetition, implementing calming strategies, returning his anger with patience and compassion. I’m constantly aware of my need for grace.

My work as a developmental therapist puts me in complicated situations every day. I regularly work with children with Autism and a myriad of other developmental issues. A common thread runs through the early sessions.

They fight.

They don’t understand.

They run.

They have meltdowns. And tantrums.

They avoid.

They hit.

They bite.

One day, something marvelous occurred. Music calmed. He let me touch his hands. He signed “more” and “please.” In 60 minutes, there was one meltdown. As we read a book, he leaned his back against me. Trust. The lights turned on. Hallelujah! We celebrated like the angels in heaven must celebrate when one sees Jesus for the first time!


I walked to my car, sank down on the seat, and shut the door. A sigh escaped, “Finally.”  And I thought of Martin Luther—

“I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.”

After wrestling with ideas of righteousness and justification for many days, at last Martin Luther received glorious illumination, penning the now famous words—

I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the Decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!”

Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted.

At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.”’ There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. -Luther

Now before I go on, let me make something abundantly clear. I am not saying Autism is sin. But other parallels are unmistakable.

He fought.

He didn’t understand.

He ran.

He had meltdowns. And tantrums.

He was angry. He raged.

As a small child fought me, so do we fight. Without Christ we’re blinded, and our comprehension of glorious truth is short circuited.

We cannot understand that He wants good things for us; God seems like the enemy, the great punisher. When we’re honest, though, we recognize the heavy burden of attaining “righteousness.” And our failures seem to mock us, “It’s impossible. You’ll never measure up.”

We don’t know how to help ourselves. Moreover, we’re thoroughly incapable.

But how wide the gates of paradise fling open!

Righteousness is a gift—“the righteousness of God through faith in Christ for all who believe…and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3)

As I pursued a toddler with patience and compassion, so does Jesus pursue me. And you. As we celebrated the small graces, so does your Savior celebrate!

But how quickly I forget. Once again glorious truth is short circuited. No, I don’t lose the gift of His righteousness, but I forget that He is for me! I fail to trust. Sometimes I throw tantrums. Sometimes I try to run away.

When I look at toddler throwing himself on the floor, kicking, screaming, and eventually succumbing to exhaustion, so clearly I see myself.

But God gathers me up, pursues my heart, and again restores me to glorious comprehension. Breakthrough.

I can rest in truth.  He is for me. 

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:31-32

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