Understanding Autism

Rachel PennerSpecial Needs1 Comment

“Do you want a box on the head?” The phrase from the elderly gentlemen caught me off guard as I was trying to calm my autistic son down before we entered the store. I was snapped back into reality when he slapped my son in the head in an attempt, I assume, to calm him down and make him behave.

The gentlemen walked off as I stood frozen with tears filling my eyes. I sucked them back and entered the store determined to complete the shopping I needed to do. I remained strong until I got to the car where I broke down and cried all the way home. I had dealt with the disapproving looks, rolling of eyes and whispers of people watching me deal with my son who physically looks normal, but someone hitting him was a whole new experience.

This day became a defining moment in my life. As I told the story people told me all the things they would have said to the gentlemen or anyone else for that matter that dared put a hand on their child. I realized I had a choice to make. I could allow bitterness and anger to build in me and lash out at the people who dared judge me: they did not know our situation, what I dealt with on a daily basis, and they deserved to be told. Or I could use my situation to educate those around me in a quiet and loving way in the hopes that they would learn and develop empathy for those suffering and dealing with difficult situations. I choose to educate, sometimes to the embarrassment of my husband who just would have preferred I “walk away.”

Raising a child with a disability is an incredibly hard road often made more difficult by those who don’t “get it.” It’s tempting to think, “I have enough to deal with, now I have to educate others as well?” Yes. Whether we are raising a child with a disability, dealing with depression or some other illness that is not always understood, we can grow and heal by lovingly choosing to educate those who would choose to judge us.

This is one of the reasons I am so thankful that they have made April Autism Awareness Month. It is a chance to educate those that are not familiar with the disability. It is a chance to celebrate the wonderful, delightful, routine oriented, honest (sometimes too honest) children who struggle with autism. Autism is a severe, lifelong developmental disorder that impairs a person’s social interaction, communication and restricts activities and interests. It may also cause behaviours that are interesting and usually seen in society as weird or different.

When my son was diagnosed 19 years ago the statistic of kids with autism was 1 in a 1000. Today it is 1 in 65. That means there are many parents out there dealing with a very difficult situation (tantrums, communication problems, sensory issues, food sensitivities etc.) That means there are many marriages struggling to stay together (90% of marriages where there is a special needs child end in divorce). That means there are many schools programming for children with autism and many workers who have a very special job teaching and working with autistic kids. (A little shout out to all the E.A.’s out there!) That means many prayers are needed!

I am grateful for every chance I get to say, “I am sorry that my child’s behaviour is disturbing you but he is autistic and I am trying very hard to calm him down!” This simple phrase has opened many doors for me to share and educate. It has turned an eye roll into a knowing nod and smile. Next time you see a mother dealing with a difficult child, please don’t judge. You have not walked a mile in her shoes and you will never know how much a smile will encourage her.

“If you think my hands are full… you should see my heart.”

Raising my son has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do but I would do it again in a heartbeat. I read a quote once that said, “If you think my hands are full… you should see my heart.” Amen to that!

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11

Then the Lord said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Exodus 4:11

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10

“The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25:40

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About the Author
Rachel Penner

Rachel Penner


Rachel has been married to Collin for 23 years. They have two sons, Jules (21) and Jaden (19). Rachel has spent the last 25 years working with youth as a voice instructor and volleyball coach. She has also worked as an educational assistant for Hanover School Division for the past 14 years.

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