John Fuller: Imagine walking into a room and sitting down. And as you do, someone turns up the static on the radio on the other side of the room. And it’s full volume. And then someone else comes in. And they start flipping the lights on and off repeatedly. And a third person, then, starts talking to you. But they’re making these really strange facial expressions while they do so. And in the midst of all that chaos and confusion, you might – you just might be able to get a glimpse of what someone with autism experiences every day.
This is Focus on the Family, and you’ll hear about the impact that autism has had on one family and how God showed up in some really unexpected ways. Now your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly. And I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, I believe the parents of a child with a disability, not just autism but the whole spectrum of disability have a special place in God’s heart because it takes enormous effort and patience and compassion to care for these children each and every day. The Bible tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and that every child is a unique gift from God. They’re not mistakes. That’s what we believe in the faith community – the pro-life community that God is at work even when things aren’t perfect, especially when things aren’t perfect.
And you know, that does beg the question, what about the rest of us then when we’re critical or even judge a special-needs family? It’s heartbreaking when you can tell what’s going on there, that child that’s really out of control in a grocery store. It could be far deeper than just a behavioral issue. And we do, as a culture, tend to lack patience, and as a church, lack patience for parents and their children who are facing these bigger obstacles. Here at Focus on the Family, we want to address this topic. And it’s for everybody, not just the parents of a child with autism. But we are going to explore today to help all of us better understand what that world is like.
John: Yeah. And as you know, Jim, when we adopted, we did not know that our youngest had autism. And um, he really has rocked our world. I mean, it’s been so unpredictable and so, uh, challenging day in and day out. But it’s also been exceptionally rewarding. And what you said earlier is so true. We hold onto that biblical truth that God’s fingerprints are on these kids. And so it’s not, “How do I fix this”? It’s a, “How do I understand what God’s doing?”
Jim: And in all honesty, it’s not easy.
John: No, it really isn’t.
Jim: It comes with a lot of patience, a lot of demand on your patience.
John: That you didn’t know you had, right?
Jim: Yeah. You find a new well. Well, we’ve invited Karla Akins into our studio. She’s an author, minister and speaker. She has nearly 40 years teaching experience in homeschooling, private and public education as well. Uh, Karla and her husband, Eddie, are the parents of five grown children including twin sons, Isaac and Isaiah, who have autism. Uh, Karla’s written a great book about her family’s journey called, A Pair of Miracles: A Story of Autism, Faith and Determined Parenting. Karla, welcome to Focus.
Karla Akins: Oh, thank you for having me. It’s very – I’m excited to be here.
Jim: I love that last line – determined parenting.
Jim: I mean, we all want that as parents, right?
Jim: Why is it extra special to have determined parenting when you’re the parent of autistic children?
Karla: Because it will take you on a journey that you never expected to go on. And the adventure never ends (laughter).
Jim: Never ends.
Karla: It never ends. There’s always something unexpected right around the corner. Um, families with autism can’t exactly be spontaneous. They have a lot of planning and determination that goes into every day.
Jim: Yeah. Let’s go all the way back for the listener so they can begin to paint a mental picture of what life was like for you before the twins were born – kind of, I would guess, in that normal category, just your normal family. And that day you received a phone call from a social worker, uh, describe what took place there.
Karla: We were foster parents. And we had already started the adoption-study process because we had been – had a placement before the twins in which we thought we were going to be able to adopt him but that God had another plan for that. So we got the call. And we had 30 minutes to decide whether or not to…
Jim: Think of that.
Jim: Thirty minutes. I mean, what an odd parameter. Although, I understand it.
Karla: Well, it wasn’t for adoption. It was for foster parenting.
Karla: So, you know, I guess that eased us into it (laughter) in a way. And – but it was a big decision for our children because we wanted to make sure that they were up for it as well.
Jim: There were – describe your family then. There were three kids…
Karla: Well, we had our daughter, Melissa. She’s my stepdaughter and my son, Jesse, and my other son, biological son, Noah.
Jim: And they’re how old at this time?
Karla: Um, Melissa was 14. And Jesse was 7. And Noah was 2.
Jim: Okay. So you get the phone call. You have 30 minutes to make this decision about foster placement. Take us forward in the story.
Karla: So the social worker called us and asked if we could go to the NICU at the hospital to pick up one of the twins. They were ready to be discharged. And they needed us to go do a CPR class so that we could take him home. And then the other twin would follow later. And I called my husband. He was at the church at the time. And he came home. We talked about it. We prayed about it. And our motto, as a family, had always been that true religion is taking care of the orphans and the widows. That had always kind of been our thing…
Karla: …and then why we went into foster care and why we always felt a calling to take care of people that couldn’t exactly take care of themselves by themselves. It was like taking baby Jesus’s into our house. All of us have Jesus inside of us. And so we were ministering to children in the name of Jesus.
Karla: They were scared. The kids were scared because the foster placement we had had before had been from birth to 11 months. He was only supposed to be with us a few months.
Jim: Right. And at this point, you’re not totally thinking about adoption, or were you?
Karla: Well, we were, and that’s why the social worker chose us…
Karla: …Because she wanted a home that would – if the things didn’t work out with the biological parents – and at that time, it did not look good – that we would adopt them.
Jim: Karla, let me ask you this question because people listening – perhaps because of Focus’s program, Wait No More, which encourages couples to consider adoption out of foster care. As you peel back the story – and we’re going to hear much more over the next few minutes – the question of why has to be answered. I mean, why – I know the scripture is there, but why take on so much burden? I mean, there’s got to be other people. I’m rationalizing what people think.
Karla: Well, in…
Jim: But tell me the why – the real why. I mean, this is hard.
Karla: Yes, most people don’t understand the why. And, in fact, we lost friends – many friends over this decision – Christian friends (laughter).
Jim: Why? Why would you lose friends?
Karla: Because they felt we already had a ministry as ministers. And then I’m a singer, and they wanted – you know, they just had other plans for me. But they’re not God. You know, I had…
Jim: (Laughter) Oh, man.
Karla: …To follow God’s calling. You know, God’s the one that called me to this, and I was abandoned at birth by my mother. I was raised by my dad, and I don’t know. God just put that desire in my heart to help children who needed a mom.
Jim: I mean, that – so your passion is born out of your pain? I mean, that…
Karla: Absolutely. Mmhmm.
Jim: …Is a typical situation. Move us forward now. The boys come home. There is some behavioral things you’re noticing. Describe that for the parent that may not know. What do those symptoms look like for the autistic child?
Karla: I noticed right away, and I must add that the twins also have fetal alcohol syndrome.
Karla: But I noticed right away that they just didn’t cuddle in. They didn’t, like – you know, a baby usually will just kind of relax and sigh into you when they’re getting their bottle or whatever. And they didn’t calm. They would scream 24/7. And this went on for several years.
Karla: Before their eyes were even open, they would scream. And they were never happy. As they got older, they didn’t play imaginatively. They didn’t know what a doll was for. They didn’t know what toys were for. They just screamed, cried and bit each other. Their backs were scarred from biting each other. And it was because of so much stress that they couldn’t modulate their emotions.
Karla: And I didn’t know about autism at that time. I knew something was wrong. Doctors just told me I wasn’t spending enough one-on-one time with them.
Karla: And then when I found out – when the doctor got the diagnosis that they had autism, he called me and told me I needed to consider giving one up because they both had severe autism. And I couldn’t possibly raise twins with autism…
Karla: …Which of course was not even an option.
Jim: Well, but let’s talk through that for a moment. Let’s look at the statistics. They were 4 years old when you…
Jim: …Got the diagnosis, but listen, everybody, to these statistics. One in 68 children have autism. And for boys, it’s 1 in 42 – if you just look…
Jim: …At boys.
Karla: And I think the CDC just put out new statistics on that.
Jim: Yeah. So the point is it affects a lot of families.
Karla: It is. It’s affecting more and more families, public schools – I’m a public schoolteacher. I teach special education, and we’re seeing more and more autistic kids come through.
Jim: Yeah. So you get the diagnosis. The twins are 4 years old. How does the family respond? What – now at least you know what’s happening, why the behavior is there – the biting, the non-interaction, the different social behavior that you weren’t used to seeing in your other three children. How did that change the household? What did you begin to do? I mean, was there anything you could do?
Karla: Well, it was a relief to have an explanation for what was going on for one thing, and then I could research. You know, I thank God that I had the Internet at that time because, you know, I was on AOL back in the AOL days. And I could, you know, get what little bit of information was out there and understand their sensory needs and be able to design my home in a way that would help them understand their environment a little better. But it was hard. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It was difficult for my other children. It was a lot of stress because the twins screamed a lot. Our voice levels in our home raised a little and – well, probably a lot. And, you know, it controlled – it actually controlled our days.
Jim: You know, the biggest challenge, I think, in that kind of environment – and I have not experienced this, so you need to educate me. And, John, you can jump in, too, because you and Dena have had this. You understand the diagnosis. It’s there. It doesn’t relieve, necessarily, the irritant of what you have to deal with as a parent all the time – the high-pitched noises, the out-of-control behavior. I think we want to get control of that. It’s normal – maybe for the protection of the other kids or whatever it might be. So it’s constant conflict.
Jim: I mean, just constant conflict.
John: It’s intense conflict and intense emotional outbursts and behaviors that never, ever end. And so we’re still dealing with that on some level.
Jim: And the difficulty, I would think you have, is that you’re trying to always correct that behavior…
John: Yeah, you…
Jim: …To get to normal. And it’s not the goal. The goal isn’t to get to normal. It’s…
John: You just learn to manage and try to make it doable.
Jim: Well, in that regard – for those of us that are listening that don’t have that situation – describe the spectrum of autism, and then what does normal become for the family that has autistic children?
Karla: It’s a different kind of normal (laughter).
Jim: What’s that spectrum look like – behavioral spectrum?
Karla: The spectrum – it’s very wide. And the DSM – I don’t know…
Jim: Which is…
Karla: …Which is the…
Karla: You guys know the words better than I do.
Jim: It’s the diagnostic manual for…
Jim: …Psychological disorders.
Karla: They’ve changed it to where now all the autism diagnoses, such as Asperger’s, which is high-functioning autism people with high IQs that maybe even have savant. And like, Temple Grandin who’s one of my autistic heroes. Um, she’s a behavioral psychologist for animals or a behavioral scientist. She has a Ph.D. in animal behavior – all the way down to my friend who has a very severe son with autism. And she has several children with autism, and he’s 23, still in diapers, does not speak, does not do much other than flap his hands and rock back-and-forth all day. And he does not use silverware when he eats. You know, and it’s a very wide spectrum, so what worked for my family is not going to work for another family. And that’s one thing people need to understand is that every child with autism – once you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen only one child with autism because it exhibits and has symptoms different in every person.
Jim: It’s really something. You had a psychologist who asked you about your long-term goals for your boys, which kind of, I think, took you back because you were thinking, “Long term? I just got to get through today.”
Karla: Exactly (laughter).
Jim: What – why was that question so provocative, and how did it begin to change your thinking?
Karla: Well, she asked me, you know, what was my hope for them? And I said, “Well, I really hope that they’ll be able to read and be able to function and give back to society.” And she threw her pen down, and she leaned over and looked me right in the eye. And she said, “That’s just pie-in-the-sky thinking, and you might as well get over that right now.”
Jim: Boy, that was the professional in your life…
Jim: …Who was not encouraging…
John: That’s the wrong thing to say.
Karla: I had a lot of professionals that had that kind of (laughter)…
Karla: …Interaction. But that’s one thing I – you know, I used a word back then – is that I just ignored protocols back then. I did not let myself be bound in by other people’s expectations and other people’s protocols. I really leaned into what God was speaking to my heart and what God would have me do for the boys. And that’s why they are miracles ‘cause they were severely autistic in the beginning.
Karla: And it’s only by God’s grace that the things that the Lord showed us to do for them worked for them. That doesn’t mean it’s going to work for someone else, but I just felt it was important to tell my story because, you know, God created them. And He knew exactly what they needed. And I knew that He had created all of us for acts of service. And that was really important to me, that the boys would know how to be servants and have servants hearts, and they do. They’re amazing.
Jim: That’s good. They’re how old now?
Karla: They’re 23.
Karla: So helpful. I – you know, I came to Colorado Springs on my own, and I missed my helpers.
Karla: You know, it didn’t work out for them to come with me this time. But they’re always looking for someone to help. They help people move. They helped someone move yesterday.
Karla: And they helped someone move – I mean, they’ve been helping people move the last few weeks. I guess summertime’s a good time to move. And they hold doors for people. They’ll come home and say, “Mom, God say go help Judy move boxes at storage unit.” And, sure enough, she’s at the storage unit.
Jim: That’s amazing.
Karla: It is.
Karla: And they hear God’s voice.
John: That is encouragement, and we’re listening to the story of God’s intervention as they learned about a diagnosis of autism for her twin boys. A Pair of Miracles is her book. You can get a CD of our conversation. And also that book, of course, at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. We naturally have other resources there as well. You can also call 1-800, the letter A and the word FAMILY if we can be of help.
And you just mentioned kind of the throw-down-the-gauntlet word from the professional. And you’ve had to ignore a variety of professionals.
John: You’ve kind of intimated that. What was the faith component of your determination like at those moments?
Karla: If I hadn’t had my faith, I don’t think I could’ve survived – because when they were small, I was just doing everything I could to get through a day – each day. So I didn’t have just them. I had my other children, too. My husband had – we had a ministry. My – we’ve been in ministry for 35 years. My husband just stepped down from full-time ministry to do other things in ministry but not pastor a church. And it was a lot, and most people did not understand what was going on at home.
John: What were your conversations with God like?
Karla: I fully believe in wrestling with God because I see examples of it in the Bible. And I was just honest with all of my feelings. I believe that God can handle it. It’s not like He doesn’t know what we’re thinking anyway. And I would just go – usually, I’d go in the bathroom and lock the door, and the kids would be pounding on the door (laughter). But I would just go in there sometimes and just slide down the door and cry and say, “God, I can’t do this.” I – you know? And I would feel bad and I’d say, “God, I’m sorry for adopting them. I’ve screwed up my family.” You know um, “the peace factor that you’re talking about is not here anymore.” And, “what have I done?” And, thank God I have a husband who is a rock, and he’d say, “Absolute” – I’d say, “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.” Because I was the one that instigated the whole adoption thing. But he was never sorry, and he never regretted it. He says, “Those boys are a blessing to us,” you know?
Jim: Yeah. Karla, that says a lot about Eddie…
Jim: …uh, but here you’re pastoring – he’s pastoring a church. I mean, how do you – how do you teach the believers around you? How do you – I mean, ‘cause you’re learning as you go too. But how do you teach the Christians around you, especially as a pastoral family, when they’re looking at these kids that are doing things that are irritating? I don’t know how you managed Sunday service, but you know, to have them in the pew must have been a little uncomfortable. Maybe you found a solution, but help us understand what that world looked like ‘cause there’s got to be somebody at your church saying, “You’re not disciplining those kids correctly.” I can hear it.
Karla: Oh, we had one lady tell us that she was surprised God did not strike my sons dead for the way they acted during communion.
Jim: Oh, think of that everybody. I mean, I’m sorry that just makes my blood boil a bit. I mean think of that – it’s out of their control, it’s out of your control.
Karla: Yeah, and my husband…
Jim: What an insensitive thing to say.
Karla: …she says I’ve watched “Rain Man.” And I know that autism doesn’t do that.
Jim: ‘Cause she – yeah.
Jim: She thinks that’s the application of the one…
Karla: Well, you know, she just didn’t…
Jim: …to the many, and it’s all different.
Karla: …She just didn’t understand, so you learn to walk in grace…
Jim: Well, that’s very patient, thank you (laughter).
Karla: You have to learn to walk in grace. You do. And I had to learn to walk in forgiveness. And, you know, I’m the chiefest of sinners, myself. So God’s forgiven me of much, so I need to forgive as God has forgiven me. But to back up a little bit, when we were at a bigger church, they didn’t understand, and my husband was on staff. He was the youth pastor at this bigger church. And we were asked uh, by – the pastor asked me, “Well, do you think you missed God in adopting the twins?” Because they were such a disruption to our lives.
Karla: And I looked at him, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t thought of that myself, several times as I had told you before.
Jim: Yeah, but it’s a quiet place in your heart where you’re…
Karla: Yeah, it’s a secret.
Jim: …dealing with God. For your pastor to say, “You sure you got that one right?”
Karla: Yeah, and I…
Jim: ‘Cause of the discomfort.
Karla: Absolutely. And it was a discomfort for him because it didn’t fit the image of the church at that time.
Jim: Wow, yeah.
Karla: And this – you gotta remember, this was in the 90s where megachurches were really bursting, and image was a big deal.
John: Everything’s rehearsed.
Jim: Well, in fairness, I mean, this is all…
Karla: Everything’s rehearsed.
Jim: …This is a learning process for everybody.
Karla: For everybody.
Jim: But for us, as the Christian leadership, we need to have some understanding and…
Karla: And grace.
Jim: …and knowledge about what’s going on.
Karla: What I said to the pastor was, “Well, if I did miss God, it doesn’t matter now anyway.”
Karla: And I think about Peter jumping out the boat – I was willing to get out of the boat, and whether or not I was supposed to, I don’t know and I won’t know until Heaven. Um, but I know God’s grace is there for me. But that prompted me – I was very upset for about a month. And what had prompted that was that the boys had pulled down some paint on brand new carpet. Some paint was sitting on some sawhorses, and they had stuck the boys – they had isolated the boys in that room, and – for whatever reason. And my husband, you know, and I had to be out in the congregation because we were on staff, so we were expected to be seen. And I wasn’t able to be with – with the twins at times, so we were depending on other people. So that’s what prompted that. So I stayed home mad for about a month.
Karla: And I said, “God is just not fair,” and “How could they be that way?” And I remember distinctly, I was laying on my bed, looking at the ceiling and feeling sorry for myself. And He says, “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” I’m like, “Why should I do something about it?”
Jim: I’m already working hard.
Karla: I’m already, you know…
Jim: I can hear it.
Karla: …trying to do everything I can do. But it prompted me to start a program called PALS, and that’s an acronym for People Assisting Little Souls. And what I did was I trained adults and teens about autism or other disabilities for – because we had other children in the church with disabilities that weren’t being ministered to – to attend their classes with their age-mates, not be isolated in another room, but go with their age-mates, so that mom and dad could go and worship with their age-mates.
John: I appreciate that.
Karla: Sometimes it’s – that’s the only time Mom and Dad get by themselves. I mean, to this day, because the twins still live with us, sometimes the only time my husband and I get alone is we sit in the car in the driveway and eat popcorn and talk. You know (laughter), that’s our date because the logistics of trying to find child care where we live – because we live so rural, it’s very difficult.
Jim: And again, Karla, the point here is we’re all learning together.
Jim: I mean these are things that are fairly new that medical science has revealed to us – that it’s not under their control. And there are things that we need to do to adapt to them and their environment and what they see, feel and experience, which is much different from the child who has these capabilities to be socially appropriate. And they don’t, oftentimes, and that’s part of the issue.
Uh, the twins today – how are they doing? I know they’re 23, but are they in a good place? And I think the bigger, next question is really, spiritually seeing God work in their lives and seeing them connect with God. Because again, distant people will look at that and say – like, your psychologist throwing the pen down, saying that’s pie in the sky when you talk about a relationship with Christ. I could see somebody saying, “That’s not going to happen.” Describe all of that if I can ask you to.
Karla: And actually, there’s been books written about how people with autism can’t be spiritual, but that has not been true for us at all. In fact, working with people with special needs, I’ve met spiritual giants.
Karla: And one thing I try to remind people is that their spirits is every bit as healthy as – as yours and mine. Their spirits aren’t damaged, you know. They’re perfect just as God created them to be in Jesus, and they accepted Christ on their own. We did not – it was their idea to get baptized. And they talk to God all the time.
Karla: And it’s kind of funny, though, because sometimes, if they want something, they’ll say, “I think God’s telling me I need a cookie.”
John: I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s not God.
Jim: I can…
John: You’ve got to be open, right?
Jim: I’d give a healthy amen to that.
Karla: But they do have an inner dialogue with the Lord, and they do listen for His voice. And…
Jim: Well, to say, I think someone needs me to help them move, and you go…
Karla: (Laughter) Yes.
Jim: …She’s moving, that’s pretty insightful.
Karla: Well, and I share a story, I think, in my book about how we were on a road trip. We drove from – they’re wonderful travelers – and we rode from northeast Indiana all the way over to the state of Washington, and we had a tire blow. And the car didn’t move. I mean, it just did not move. All of a sudden, we just felt a wobble. And Isaiah said, “Mom, I see angel push our car and hold it still.” Not going to argue.
Karla: How do I know he didn’t see an angel?
Jim: Boy, there’s a statement. I mean, really, if what we believe is true…
Karla: So don’t…
Jim: …That’s not outside the norm.
Karla: …Tell me that they can’t be spiritual.
Karla: You know, they have spiritual eyes to see.
Jim: Karla, what a great place to wrap this up – at least for the broadcast. I do want to continue and ask you some more questions on the website, and people can go there to hear the rest of the dialogue. But, again, some of the things with churches and how we deal with this. But what an uplifting way to end the conversation – with that comment about one of your little guys seeing an angel take care of you. That is the difference.
Jim: I mean, we don’t know everything.
Jim: I know we want to, and it’s part of the human ego to try to eat from the tree of knowledge – that, of course, we are all knowledgeable. But guess what, everybody? No way. God sees far more than what we can see. And sometimes people are wired in such a way that they can see things that normal people can’t see. This has been terrific. I really love your book – A Pair of Miracles: A Story of Autism, Faith, and Determined Parenting. (Laughter) You can’t get better than that. Thanks for the stories. Let’s continue online and go there. Can we do that?
John: And Karla, thank you. It was so good to have you with us.
Jim: John, I really want to get Karla’s book into as many people’s hands as possible – A Pair of Miracles: A Story of Autism, Faith, and Determined Parenting is exactly what so many people need. This book isn’t just for parents of autistic children, it’s a great story and a topic that everyone should be aware of. That’s why I want to send you a copy of A Pair of Miracles when you send a gift to Focus on the Family for any amount to help us do the ministry here. And that will be our way of saying thank you for partnering with us. So can we count on you for support today?
John: Yeah, you can donate and receive your complimentary copy of that book by Karla and find lots of great parenting, resources, articles, and downloads at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. 800-232-6459.
Well, coming up next time, an important reminder about how the parenthood journey is a lot shorter than you may realize.
Eryn Lynum: And after the ceremony, our pastor turned to each of us and he hands us a jar of 936 pennies. And so he told us then, that it represents every week you have with your child. And he challenged us…
Jim: 0 to 18?
Eryn: 0 to 18. Exactly.
Eryn: And so he challenged us to remove a penny every week to remind us that the time is fleeting and our days are numbered, as Psalm 90:12 says.
End of Teaser