As I sat in the audience last week, my heart filled with gratitude.
Nearly four years ago, I had undertaken a nine hour autism certification program through Liberty University to not only learn more about autism and how to assist my children, but also gain nine credit hours to keep my Oregon Teacher’s License up to date. One of the autism experts I gleaned much from during my studies is a clinical psychologist named Dr. Tony Attwood. He has played an integral role in growing the understanding of children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome or what today is diagnosed as Autism Level 1 according to the DSM-V.
Fast forward to last week, and here I was, in Johannesburg, South Africa, excitedly perched in the front row with my friend, just feet away from Dr. Attwood. He had come to South Africa for the first time in his 30+ year career! He was here to share key insights about issues that adolescents face with autism with parents, educators, therapists, and psychologists.
Although there are more supports in place for families with children with autism in South Africa since our arrival in 2006, the level of understanding and support remains quite limited.
I can still remember the question posed by a friend in 2010, “With everything you have going on with Jake and Caleb, Heather, why are you here? The United States has so many more resources than our country does. You should go back.”
It is 2017, now. I didn’t listen to that advice.
It hasn’t been an easy journey, of course.
I am homeschooling our sons, primarily because the cost of special needs education is cost-prohibitive to our missionary family. For example, one special needs school principal approached me at the Tony Attwood conference last week. She wanted to see if I would be interested in enrolling Jake and Caleb. The school tuition for this school is 90,000 rand per year (at today’s rand/dollar exchange that is approximately $6700). Multiply this amount by 2 and that is 18,000 rand or $13,400 for both our kids. Then add other fees like therapies, uniforms, books, field trips, etc. and you may understand a little more why we have opted to homeschool. (This school’s tuition rates are comparable to most in our area.)
Doing something new and unfamiliar remains a challenge for Jake and Caleb as well. Jake and Caleb’s sensory sensitivities – particularly to high levels of noise and activity – distress them. They have better coping skills than in the past. However, John and I have noticed an increase in anxiety in Jake, particularly when we introduce him to new and unfamiliar settings and events. Thanks to being with Dr. Attwood last week, I learned that puberty causes a significant rise in anxiety among autistic teenagers. Things that Jake once handled, now seem to cause him more stress.
And to be completely honest with you, it’s just been plain hard finding kids their age who would like to engage with Caleb and Jake. Although Jake and Caleb seem content to be at home and just do-their-thing, being able to socially engage in this world is something they will need to do and to do well in order to make it. We’ve done a ton, and I mean a ton, to help Jake and Caleb socially. However, because their interests and behavior are different than most of their same-age peers, unless the peer demonstrates a strong level of maturity, and buckets of mercy and grace, there is just not much engagement offered. Jake and Caleb must also come to the party, though. However, they can tell right off the bat when someone cares about them and when they don’t. And if they don’t, there’s no need to try…..
So, why are we here, still?
Why would we choose to remain when on one level in our South African life, two of our children may appear not to be accepted or have things in place to meet their needs?
Now, this may be a stretch, but believe it or not, I found part of my answer in my study of hope in the book of Ruth.
The first time the word ‘hope’ is documented in the Old Testament is found here.
You may know the story.
Naomi, a Hebrew woman, is in the throes of anguish, sorrow and despair. Her husband and two adult sons have died. She is a foreigner living in Moab and sees no future there. She believes it is time to return to her home country. Orpah and Ruth, the two Moabite women who had married Naomi’s sons, begin to accompany her to Israel. Yet, as they journey, Naomi admonishes them to return to Moab:
But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!” New International Verson, Ruth 1:11-13
Naomi sees no blessing and no hope for her two daughters-in-law in Israel. Tensions remained between Moab and Israel due to previous antagonistic encounters. In earlier times, Moabites had prevented the Israelites from passing through their land during the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt. In addition, marital relations between Moabites and Israelites was discouraged – if not forbidden in some situations. Moabites were not allowed to worship at the Tabernacle. Naomi viewed the future of her daughters-in-law with a prejudicial lens. She believed that any possibility of re-marriage would only occur in the land of their birth. It was time for them to go back.
Reading on in the story, Orpah honors her mother-in-law’s wishes and returns to Moab. However, Ruth, knowing that few if any opportunities for re-marriage await her, refuses. Instead, she says,
“Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go, I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” New International Version, Ruth 1:16
Based upon the story, can you tell who I relate to most in terms of our decision to remain in South Africa for as long as we have?
In Hebrew, hope comes from the transliterated word tiqvah. Tiqvah is defined as a cord. It also means to wait, expect, look eagerly, and wait patiently for. As I picture it, I see a cord of twisted strands bound together with hope, expectation, waiting, aspiration, and patience.
Naomi had dropped her cord of hope. We can understand why. Her sorrow was overwhelming.
However, Ruth had picked up the cord of hope, enjoined hands with her mother-in-law, and courageously walked forward to a place that offered limited and possibly no opportunity for her.
I can relate to that.
“Why are you here, Heather, when opportunities await your family back in America?”
Yet, as I sat listening to Dr. Attwood last week, I can tell you I have a collection of new strategies (to me) and tools to assist my children this year – coming at just the right time.
I sat in that auditorium with a cord of hope.
We celebrate our 11th year of southern African life in a couple of weeks. No, it hasn’t been an easy time. However, because of the life we live here we know that Jake and Caleb have been given an appreciation of a global world and not just an American world. Different and life-affirming opportunities have come to them – maybe not the same ones that they would have had in the States had we decided to go back at some point. Yet, there is no guarantee that they would have had any of the things we think they could have had either.
What have they missed? I couldn’t tell you.
What have they gained?
Ah, that is the answer that will unfold as Jake and Caleb continue to mature and grow.
Our family loves living in South Africa. Yes, we love it!
We have held onto the cord of hope. We choose to follow and remain near our God. He has us here for as long as He desires. We embrace our life here and have chosen like Ruth to go where our God asks and leave our future in His hands.
We appreciate all of you who have prayed for us through the years to not just remain here but to thrive – despite the challenges.
Your prayers have strengthened our cord of hope.