Friends, most of you know that our son, Jake is autistic. It took a long while to finally get this diagnosis for Jake. But when we did, it was no surprise.
Early in his life, Jake demonstrated many of the tell-tale characteristics of autism. He had a significant speech delay. He employed few words in his vocabulary to communicate his needs or to express himself. Jake didn’t have a clue of how to effectively engage in social situations – and non-verbal communication? It was completely lost upon him. Jake rarely looked at or acknowledged people. He preferred to keep to himself. He focused much of his attention upon Thomas the Tank Engine. Years and years and years of Jake’s play time was devoted to laying out tracks and playing with his engines. He watched Thomas videos and could recite them verbatim. He still can.
Jake also managed his life by sticking to regiments and routines. Minor changes in his day-to-day life could cause significant anxiety. Jake used repetitive behaviors to either increase or reduce sensory input. He could be overwhelmed by loud noises. And bright, bright light disturbed him. Jake was resistant to change and had no trouble letting us know when things were just too much for him.
During those years, Jake also struggled with people coming too close to him. In fact, John and I had to inform people to never ever, ever, ever approach Jake from behind to touch him or hug him. Such an action made Jake very anxious and uncomfortable – especially when he was two to six years of age.
It was during this time in Jake’s young life that John and I applied to the mission field, were accepted, and eventually sent to South Africa.
It probably seemed like a crazy idea to many who knew us to take Jake – a special needs child – to another country – especially at a time when we were still determining the extent of Jake’s physical, emotional, and social needs. Yet, the doors opened wide to our family to make this huge jump across the ocean to the African continent. So, we did.
But, today, I have no doubt that Jake’s physical, emotional, social, and spiritual development were positively affected and enhanced because of our mission decision and the experiences we have had here in South Africa.
Have we had to work with Jake?
We’ve spent countless hours helping Jake with his speech, his social interactions, his academics, his daily-life skills, and so much more. We have also enlisted the assistance of teachers, doctors, and specialists. Their professional guidance and input has propelled Jake’s growth and development in significant ways.
Yet, bringing Jake to the mission field afforded an even more significant opportunity.
The mission world opened its big, big, big heart to Jake.
How do I know?
Well, recently, I shared about an interaction between Jake and his occupational therapist, Jeané. Today, I want to document this event and to provide more background as to why this story is so meaningful to our family.
On Tuesday, Jake pulled out the ‘loved’ card from a pack of feeling cards during his OT session. His job was to identify the feeling along with a person, place or time that expressed this kind of feeling in his life.
The discourse began:
Jeané (Jake’s OT): Do you understand what ‘loved’ means, Jake?
Jake: Please tell me.
Jeané: Loved means that you are loved by others. Who loves you?
Jake: Well, Grandpa, Nana, and Grandma love me.
Jeané: And – (pointing to me)
Jake: And, Chris and Norma, Kristina, Gary, Ben, Kara and Logan. And Mark and Claire and Dan and Susan, and Mike and Gail,
Jeané: And – (pointing to me)
Jake: And Karl and Jenny, and Barbara and Paul and Scott and Maggie, and Leigh and Christopher and Cherie and David and… (catching his breath)
Jeané: That’s a lot of people, Jake and … (pointing to me again)
Jake: And Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan love me.
Jeané: Yes, and (pointing to me again) …
Jake: And the whole team loves me, and Erin and Teresa and Pam and Lyle, and Susie and Kelly, and Uncle Gordon and Aunt Jeannie and Uncle David and Aunt Molly, and… (catching his breath again(!)),
Me: And Jake – pointing at Jeané – Who else?
Jake: OH! And Jeané and Talia and Paige love me too!”
Jeané: Thank you, Jake! And who else (pointing to me)
Jake: OH! I FORGOT! Mom, Dad, Micah and Caleb love me, too!
Jeané: You have a lot of people who love you, Jake!
Jake: Yes, I do.
As I listened to Jake recite name upon name upon name of all the different people who love him, I recognized that this was a direct result of our mission life. You see, for the majority of Jake’s life, we have lived in a way that we travel to and live with a variety of people. On the mission field, we live in community with our team. When we return on home assignment, we live with family and friends. Our family has been invited into home upon home upon home. As a result, Jake has been afforded the opportunity and luxury to get to know, get to trust, and get to love a lot of people. A lot of people.
And these people – our friends, our family, our team, and our ministry partners have gotten to know Jake and love him, too.
Had we remained in the States, and not entered the mission world, our family never would have traveled and interacted with so many different people. Because of this mission lifestyle, Jake learned to travel, to interact, and to open his heart to many people. And something else happened! Jake’s speech, social interactions and engagement improved as he was loved and cared for time and time and time again.
Over the course of our twelve plus years of missionary living, Jake developed a network of people who engaged with Jake and loved him from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California, Alabama, Colorado, Florida, and more!
Isn’t that incredible?
How many autistic young people can declare that they are loved so consciously? So confidently? Without hesitation? Let alone, how many young people across this wide, wide, wide world know how loved they are?
This kind of knowledge is a real, demonstrable expression of the love of Christ.
His word says:
We love because He first loved us.
New International Version, 1 John 4: 9
Jake knows he is loved because of the generous, compassionate love and consistent care he has received from so many of you because of the love you have received from your Savior.
You opened your hearts to our special needs son and showed him your love in such a way that he knows it! For an autistic kid like Jake, that’s amazing! Simply amazing! His struggles may remain, but the growth and development gains he has made have occurred because of the love he has received from so many of you!
Yes, it may have been crazy to bring Jake to the mission field. But because we did – Jake knows how loved he is – such a gift is beyond measure!