This past Sunday, I had an opportunity to witness a very special moment at my parish. An eighteen-year-old man with high-functioning autism was taking his first turn as a lector at Mass. The lector role is an important one with serious responsibility, but this young man showed confidence and little fear as he read a very long first reading from Exodus to the several hundred people in attendance. The compliments he received after Mass for the great job he did from countless well-wishers brought a shy smile to his face as he basked in the glow of the kind words shared by his fellow parishioners.
This is a heart-warming story to be sure, but there is more here than meets the eye. There was a small army of loving and caring people in the parish who trained, supported, encouraged, and prayed for him to get to this wonderful moment of personal success on Sunday morning. The names might not mean anything to you, but people like Jeanne, Monsignor Peter, Deacon Scott, Father Tom, Deacon Mike, Sue, Rosemary, and others who helped him are the ones who have modeled the very best of what it means to be Catholic. They represent in their actions and words the elements of a caring family so critical for a thriving Catholic parish.
The young man’s mother, father, and brother looked both anxious and proud as they watched him achieve this brief moment of triumph. What did this mean to them? Did they envision this day was possible in the early years after his diagnosis with autism when a normal future for their son looked bleak? How few are the little victories like this in families with special needs children? They must long for an opportunity to see their oldest child excel in life and receive accolades for achievements that other families may sometimes take for granted.
I was deeply touched by the courage of the young man for even attempting such a thing. Knowing something about autism, I realize the incredible effort he had to make to do something many of us would have seen as easy or routine. Nothing is easy for these children or adults on the autism spectrum, and they often struggle to fit in to a world they find alien and sometimes hostile. His example has inspired me, and has already helped me be more sensitive to other people I encounter each day with the great burdens they may have on their shoulders. I pray I never take for granted the things I can do, which others cannot.
This special young man is named Alex, and I know him well because he is my son. My wife and I are blessed beyond measure to be his parents and are very proud of our oldest child. Maybe, just maybe, the breakthrough he had that Sunday will be one of many in the years to come. We pray that a future we once saw as limited by autism will be blessed by God to bear much fruit for Alex, for those who love him, and for the people he encounters in his life.
Editor’s Note: Would you like to learn more about Randy Hain’s newest book? His seventh book, Special Children, Blessed Fathers: Encouragement for Fathers of Children with Special Needs (Foreword by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput), is available from Emmaus Road Publishing and Amazon in both hardcover and paperback. All author royalties for this book benefit the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.