RPM, Volume 12, Number 41, October 10 to October 16, 2010

God Speaks!
A Father's Journey Through Autism

By Todd Hardin

Todd serves as the Minister of Counseling and Discipleship at Salem Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He holds a Master's of Divinity degree in Pastoral Counseling from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is currently writing his dissertation for the doctoral program in Biblical Counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary. Todd's ministry may be summarized as "helping saints, sinners, and sufferers see the goodness and glory of God." A devoted family man, Todd has been married to his lovely bride Brenda since 1994. The couple has been blessed with two wonderful boys, Tucker (born in 1998) and Fletcher (born in 2002). Todd may be contacted at revhardin@gmail.com
Adversity by itself does not build character. It reveals character, and what it reveals in us is often dark. Nevertheless, God puts adversity to good work. In His hands, adversity serves gracious, constructive purposes.

You never truly know how you will respond to a given hardship until you find yourself unexpectedly facing it. Nowhere have I found this to be truer than in my own family. Something very difficult took us completely by surprise. Dealing with it proved surprisingly difficult. We struggled more than I could ever have imagined. However, God brought good. Here is our story.

My name is Todd. If I were to describe myself, I would say that I am a man who loves my family. I am a husband of a beautiful, godly woman named Brenda and the father of two small boys. Our oldest boy Tucker is everything you could ask for in a son. He is polite, witty, and perhaps the kindest person I know. Our youngest son Fletcher is the spitting image of his proud father. I would love to tell you that I enjoy taking my boys to ball games and sharing those special experiences that Dads accumulate before their sons discover girls, cars, and cell phones; but if I did, I would be lying. For these experiences have been reserved for other Dads. In God's sovereign wisdom, He blessed our family with a very special young man. Our little Fletcher suffers from severe autism and by all accounts is most likely mentally retarded as well.

I write this article specifically to husbands and fathers in families such as mine. In these next few pages, I want to accomplish three simple tasks. First, I want to give voice to the experience of living life in a family with an autistic child. Second, I want to help you cut through the fog of grief in order to find "the" Redeemer who speaks and acts within your current struggles. Third, I want to demonstrate how you can truly go through this life grieving, yet hopeful. I will accomplish these tasks by taking you on my personal journey. However, before you join me upon the path, I want you to know that I too am still a pilgrim who has yet to reach his destination. I do not have every answer; but I am painfully yet blessedly aware of Who does.

As we walk together, I will ask God to give voice to my experience through personalizing sections from the Psalter. 1 I do this for two reasons. First, God can often articulate my experience much better than I can. Second, I want you to experience the primary way in which God has comforted me thus far on my journey.

I have also limited the scope of my discussion to the most salient of my personal experiences of our family's situation. There are many fascinating stories of God's grace working in the lives of the other members of our troupe, but I have chosen to tell those stories at another time. This story is a recollection of my journey from darkness to light; a story riddled with joys, sorrows, but most importantly, a story about God. That said; please feel free to accompany me on my travels.


Generally, the distance of time helps one make sense of historical events and allows him to recount a coherent story. As I think back on the day that the psychologist gave us Fletcher's diagnosis, I am still uncertain about how things played out. Grief does that. I do remember Brenda collapsing in the floor of the psychologist's office while heaving for breath like an asthmatic separated from his inhaler. I remember her moans of lament that seemed immune to my comfort. It was as if our hearts had been ripped from our chests and trampled upon by sinister creatures named Wormwood and Screwtape. 2

I do remember weakly thinking, "Okay God, this is horrible. Please help me with Brenda." I too quickly found my stiff upper lip quiver with sadness as I wandered off into my own field of broken dreams and lost opportunities. I recall the sadness that overcame me as I realized that I would not be officiating the wedding of my first son while my second one stood in as his best man. I realized that I would never bounce Fletcher's little boy on my knee and share with him what a rascal his old man had been. As I processed these intense cognitions, I became overwhelmed by a sense of fear. Who would take care of Fletcher after I died? Psalm 69:1-3 spoke for me:

Save me, O God! For the waters [of Fletcher's autism] have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for You.
This tidal wave of fear flooded my thinking and despite my levy erecting prowess, there remained the constant threat of a breach in the walls of my heart. This breach became even more vulnerable as I watched Brenda sink slowly into the darkness of depression.


In a matter of months, I watched my beautiful vibrant wife become a shell of her former self. She went about her daily activities devoid of positive emotions while being responsive to nothing but numbness. During one stretch, I had to leave our church early every day at 10:00 a.m. to come home and hold her while she sat crying in the middle of our living room floor. In His grace, God has lovingly erased the content of our conversations from my memory. The thing I do remember is that it felt as if God had abandoned us.

Our small church tried to minister to us as best they could, but their efforts were limited at best. Our families were even less helpful because they simply did not know "what" to do and were terrified of making some type of irreversible mistake with Fletcher. So there we sat: Brenda and me. Psalm 88:13-18 embodies our experiences on that cold, hardwood living room floor:

But we, O Lord, cry to you; in the morning our prayers come before you. O Lord, why do you cast our souls away? Why do you hide your face from us? Afflicted and close to death from this experience, we suffer your terrors; we are helpless. Your wrath has swept over us; your dreadful assaults destroy us. They surround us like a flood all day long; they close in on us together. You have caused our beloved and our friends to shun us; our companions have become darkness.
During this time we longed to feel God's presence, but try as we might, we stumbled in the darkness oblivious to His sustaining presence in our lives. During this silence, my fears concerning Fletcher's future kept growing larger. St. John of the Cross referred to a time such as this as "the dark night of the soul." It was during this period in my life that I found myself engulfed in the darkness of fear: an unrelenting dimness that knew no daybreak.


At some point along the way, the fear spawned by the prospect of Fletcher's life after my demise became too much for me. Instead of escaping to the sanctuary of drugs and other vices, I inadvertently turned to the study of God's word. I began searching for God right there in the dark. As I groped around at the bottom of this cistern called fear, I accidentally bumped into something; or better said, Someone. I learned an important lesson in the bottom of that pit. Psalm 139:11-12 speaks accurately to my experience: That was it! I had unintentionally bumped into God as I floundered in the dark pit of fear! Although I was still in darkness, I now knew that I was not alone. From a logical perspective, I knew that I had no further justification for fear; however, during this time, I also discovered that fear follows a logic of its own. It would take more to move me into the light. I continued to stay close to the Lord waiting for the sunrise.


That sunrise came some six years after that day in the psychologist's office. One morning the Lord illuminated my dreary world. He used Psalm 103:15-19 to break through my fear. Listen to what God said:
As for me [Todd], my days are like grass; I flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over me, and I am gone, and my place knows me no more. But [your] steadfast love [O] Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those [like me] who fear you, and your righteousness to children's children [like Fletcher], to those who keep your covenant and remember to do your commandments. You have established your throne in the heavens, and your kingdom rules over all.
As I rolled this passage as a prayer over my soul, I felt three penetrating beams of divine sunlight vanquishing the fear that held my heart hostage. The first sunbeam revealed that my time here on earth is but a temporary existence. The second sunbeam highlighted the fact that God's steadfast love was not temporary but eternally focused upon His children (a family in which Fletcher and I are both members). The third sunbeam warmed me to the idea that God was sovereign over everything, including Fletcher's life, independent of my mortality.

Because of this experience with God, I learned that I am woefully incapable of providing Fletcher with the care he needs. If statistics hold true, I will die before he does. Fortunately, there is a God who has a steadfast love that compels Him to watch over my son and the powerful sovereignty to assure that Fletcher's care is properly executed. As I reflected upon this interaction, I realized that my fears really stemmed from a lack of trust in God. With this confession came repentance, with repentance came faith, with faith came obedience, and with obedience came hope. This hope did not change my circumstances. Fletcher is still autistic; I still grieve the broken dreams; but now I grieve with the knowledge that there is purpose in my suffering. Even on dark days, I now can feel the warmth of a distant sun.


What do I do on those days that I feel the enticement of fear's call to darkness? I have a simple response. I simply verbalize my internal experience and I recite a brief but accurate statement of faith. Psalm 42:5-6a voices my creed:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.
I would like to report that I seldom use this confession of faith; however, to do so would be somewhat disingenuous. This confession reminds me that I must be constantly vigilant in fighting the fears that come over me concerning Fletcher's future. This confession reminds me that these fears point to a deeper heart issue: my lack of trust in God's willingness and ability to care for Fletcher in the way that He sees best. This confession teaches me that my hope rests in God and no one else (myself included). This confession gives me the courage I need to beat back the hounds of fear and to remember that I must rely on God to give me the strength I need for today.


There is little doubt that I am not the same person who witnessed Fletcher's birth. God has been doing a work within me designed to conform me to the image of His Son (Phil. 1:6; Rom. 8:28-30). I have learned that I must use my life experience to light the way for others who suffer in similar ways (2 Cor. 1:3-5). Admittedly, there are days when my light shines brighter than others, but through the tears of my travels, I see a much brighter tomorrow. While on this journey I take solace in the following: "… the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day" (Prov. 4:18). What has God taught me thus far on my journey?

God has taught me to identify with His Son. To say that I know exactly what Jesus went through would be ridiculous, but to say that in some small way I "get" what Christ experienced through my own sufferings is true. Peter put it this way:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share in Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed… Therefore, let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (1 Pet. 4:12-13, 19).
This passage helps me make sense of my suffering and exhorts me to simply "do the next right thing" when hurting. Let us examine some of the things God has taught me through this experience.

God has taught me a little about the love of a father. He has shown me how to love people as He has created them. I am just as thrilled to watch Fletcher "go pee-pee in the potty" as to watch Tucker sink a game winning shot. Why is this the case? This is so because God has taught me to love my sons for who they are and not what they have done.

God has taught me a little about persecution. Although our family's safety has yet to be threatened, it is still a terrible experience to watch other families leer at your son while requesting that the waitress relocate them to the other side of the restaurant.

God has taught me a little about service. The Lord usually uses the frequent occasions when Fletcher decorates the walls of his room with remnants from his diaper to remind me that I am here to serve as His hands in ministering to one of His precious little children.

God has taught me a little about original sin. I chuckle when I hear the sound of Fletcher's fiendish laugh as he attempts to sneak into his room with some forbidden food that he believes he has successfully heisted from the kitchen counter. In witnessing this expression of original sin, I see the fingerprint of my little boy's humanity and it strengthens my faith in his Creator.

God has taught me a little about sacrifice. This lesson returns in force with every children's event in our church. I experience wistfulness when I look upon the stage and see children Fletcher's age singing in the Christmas musical, their parents snapping pictures while bursting with pride and holding a future full of limitless possibilities.

God has taught me about joy. Despite the day's difficulties, Fletcher always greets me with a smile, laugh, and open invitation to wrestle, tickle, kiss, and hug the happiest child on the face of the earth.

Most importantly God has taught me to trust Him to provide manna for today (Ex. 16). Through this experience, my Creator has been whittling away at the remaining vestiges of self-sufficiency that characterized the man I used to be. I no longer fear tomorrow; I have found that it is much better to fear the Lord instead. As I grow in my fear of the Lord, I learn to live a life characterized by repentance, faith, and obedience. I learn to live life as God intended it, in spite of my circumstances. It is my prayer that you will also.


As our brief time with one another draws to a close, I hope that our conversation has helped. I do want to leave you with some practical principles that will help you solidify what you learned in our time together. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list; rather, these suggestions should serve as a starting point in helping you find hope in the midst of difficult circumstances.
  • 1. Hear, learn, accept, and embrace the fact that God is sovereign over the most diminutive details of your life.

    As you experience life with your autistic child, remember that everything that occurs is purposeful, meaningful, and ultimately designed to glorify God and conform you to the image of Christ. Accept the fact that you are woefully unqualified to perform God's job.

  • 2. Learn to see your autistic child through the eyes of Christ.

    "Then children were brought to him that he might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven'" (Matt. 19:14). As a parent of an autistic child, you must be careful that you do not subconsciously reject your child because he or she does not measure up to your standards. As you reflect upon Jesus' words, compare your heart with your child's heart, whose heart is more acceptable to Christ?

  • 3. Allow your autistic child to teach you about God, yourself, and others.

    As you observe your autistic child, maintain a humble spirit and simply observe God at work in your child's life. What does your child teach you about God's creation? What can your child teach you about your own anxieties and lack of faith? What can your child teach you about priorities in life?

  • 4. Seek to serve your wife by incarnating Christ.

    If your child's diagnosis triggers depression in your wife, make sure that you maintain proximity to her. By proximity, I mean that you should be emotionally present with her. Suffering speaks so loudly that mere biblical platitudes will fall upon deaf ears. During her struggle, she may not hear you, but if you are there, she can see you. Your patient, loving presence can make a huge difference in her battle.

  • 5. Do not neglect your healthy children.

    In your grieving over your autistic child, you may unintentionally neglect your healthy children. Make time in your schedule to do things with your healthy children. Do not rob your other children of their father as you desperately seek to understand your child's autism


  • 6. Relationally, discipline yourself to follow a policy of engagement.

    Often, families with autistic children withdraw from social interaction. Frequently there are good reasons for this; however, whenever possible, do what you can to help your family interact with others. You may have to take special precautions, but with a little ingenuity, you can maintain a relatively normal social life. Talk with your church's leadership and see what they can do to help your family participate in the community of faith.

  • 7. Humbly identify those triggers that beckon you towards the darkness by keeping a repentant spirit as your constant companion.

    "But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death" (James 1:14-15). Maintain a vigilant watch concerning the events or situations that tend to get you down. When you identify these feelings, quickly repent of your unbelief and ask God to give you the grace you need to weather the storm.

  • 8. When visiting the pit of darkness, hold tightly to the rope of faith.

    If you find yourself in the pit, remember that God has pulled you out before and that He will do so again. Use Psalm 77:11-12 as your battle cry: "I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds."

  • 9. At all times, walk obediently in the light.

    You must understand that it is impossible to be the husband and father that God has called you to be without reflecting God's perfection to your family. This reflecting of God's perfection does not mean that you will be perfect, but it does mean that you will be growing. Do not let your grieving keep you from growing in Christ! John gives us this mandate: "If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us of all sin" (1 John 1:6-7). Be diligent in keeping yourself cleansed.

  • 10. Smile daily and thank God for the precious gift of your autistic child.

    Psalm 127:3 says that, "Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward." The verse does not distinguish between autistic and non-autistic children. Seek and celebrate the little daily blessings that God gives you through your child. This activity will bless your family and make you much easier to live with!

  • 11. Do not worry about tomorrow. Trust God for His provision TODAY.

    Timing is everything. If you are prone to worry, then you will remain focused on the future. God calls us to rely on him in the present. When it comes to timing, we need to cultivate the faith of Abraham who responded to his seemingly sacrificial son Isaac in this way: God will provide for himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (Gen. 22:8). Fortunately for Isaac, God's timing was most expeditious in respect to His provision. Just as Abraham learned to trust God for His provision on a moment-by-moment basis, as the father of an autistic child, you must do the same. A lack of faith in this area will paralyze you and prevent you from effectively serving God while caring for your family.


    1. In places, I have personalized portions of the Psalms to give voice to my experience. I have italicized these alterations to prevent a misunderstanding as to my use of these scriptures. All scriptures are taken from the English Standard Version.

    2. These names come from the infamous demons in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters.

    This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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