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The Unexpected Joys of Raising an Autistic Child (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 09/23/2010

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Emily Colson talks about the trials and triumphs she's experienced in raising her autistic son, Max. Her father, author Chuck Colson (now deceased), joins the conversation to discuss the lessons they've learned from Max which underscore the sanctity of all human life. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


Recorded Phone Call:

Woman: I was listening today to the story of "A Man Named Norma" and I have a[n] autistic son, who is now 19 and just graduated from high school. And you know, he's very talented. He's very artistic. He's got an insight. He's just a neat person who I would've never ever wanted to miss meeting or knowing. You never know what you're gonna find. It's like the gift that you open and there's a special present inside.

End of Prerecorded Phone Call

John Fuller: Well, you can hear that mother's heart. She so desperately wants others to know and understand how wonderful her son is and that he's a gift. And indeed, all life is precious. He is a gift. You'll hear a similar heart on today's program. I'm John Fuller and this is "Focus on the Family" with Focus president and author, Jim Daly.

Jim Daly: John, that is a mother's heart so beautifully expressed in that clip. Today we have another story of a mother's and grandfather's heart, featuring my good friend and mentor, the late Chuck Colson and his daughter, Emily. Chuck was known as a cultural lion. He was an incredible thinker, intellectual. Of course, he passed from this earth into glory in 2012 and I gotta tell you, I miss him to this day. He was one of the few men that reached out, you know, the transition from Dr. Dobson. He came and he had lunch with me on several occasions. He called me at least once a month and just talked with me and asked me how things were going. And he was just a statesman that was willing to reach out. One of my favorite stories, we were sitting having lunch together and that's an experience--

John: Yes.

Jim: And just the back and forth of where we're at in the culture, things that are happening in the culture. He so effortlessly would quote writings of antiquity--Aristotle, Plato, of course, Scripture. And you know, we're going through the lunch and at the end of the lunch he looked at me and said, "You're like a regular guy, aren't you?" (Laughing) And I said, "Yes, I am." And he said, "That's a good thing. Don't ever change."

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: And that meant the world to me, 'cause when you're flying with people who are such great thinkers like that, you can be intimidated. And I'm sure he felt, you know what? It's good to be just a normal guy and he encouraged me in that way and I'll never forget that.

Not many know his personal story of being a grandfather to Max, his autistic grandson and kinda like the clip you just heard and of watching his daughter raise Max on her own. It was a wonderful story of a grandfather's heart--

John: Yes.

Jim: --watching that. They visited with us here in 2010 and the conversation went on to become one of our best programs. And I really want to go back to it. Those kind of nuggets of wisdom, they don't lose their benefit just because time has passed. And I think it'll be good for all of us to hear Chuck Colson again.

John: And it's very fitting, Jim, to air this program. It's World Autism Day tomorrow and with that, let's go ahead and hear Chuck Colson and his daughter, Emily on today's "Focus on the Family."


Jim: Emily Colson, mother of Max, who we're gonna talk about. Emily, welcome to the "Focus on the Family" broadcast.

Emily Colson: Thank you so much. It's such a thrill to be here. There's is nothing I like to do more than talk about Max. (Laughter) And it's such a thrill to be able to share him with all the listeners and through this new book with all the readers.

Jim: Yeah.

Emily: So, it's really a thrill. Thank you.

Jim: Well, we're looking forward to it. And of course, your father, Chuck Colson, who is also grandfather of Max, is here with us today. Chuck, good to have you here.

Chuck Colson: Jim, thank you. This is a subject that is really very personal with me and as it was with that mother who called in as it is with Emily, so I'm thrilled to be here. I'm the second guy in the act, Tell everyone, my daughter's the first.

Jim: That's for sure; that's for sure. And you know, a lot of people again, may not know the family dynamic, the Colson family. Chuck, you came to the Lord after serving in the Nixon administration, the whole issue of Watergate. We've touched on that in other broadcasts here at Focus. Just set that up a little bit for us and what that was like.

Chuck: Well, my story, Jim, is well known because I was converted after leaving the Nixon White House, [in] which [I had] risen to at 37-years-old in the office next to the President of the United States--pretty heady business. Then came the crash of Watergate.

And during that period, however, I met a friend who had come to Christ and he led me to Christ. And so, that was a complete turnaround in my life and a lot of things in my life that I look back on, that I had really been a big failure at, God forgave and gave me a whole new life.

And I was feeling that working in the prisons and He's restored a relationship with my family that has just been miraculous and you're gonna hear some of that today.

Jim: Well, it is interesting. I'm sure a lot of people are interested, Emily, being the daughter of Chuck Colson. What was that like?

Emily: Well, let's say, it's been interesting (Laughter), to put it mildly.

Jim: Yeah.

Emily: Definitely I can tell you that there has been a tremendous contrast in my dad in my younger years before he was a Christian.

Jim: And you were a teenager at the time and--

Emily: I was a teenager.

Jim: --you were in high school. How did that impact you as a teenager, seeing this transformation in your father?

Emily: Well--

Jim: That had to be--

Emily: --it--

Jim: --something.

Emily: --it was such an intense time, with Watergate and everything that was happening. It was so public that it was certainly awkward. I think that life with dad had always sort of been this whirlwind.

Jim: Yeah.

Emily: So, it kind of came in as just one more little burst of a tornado with Watergate and everything that happened with that. So, we kind of just got swept along. Certainly, there were people that weren't so kind.

Jim: Yeah, that--

Emily: And--

Jim: --must have been tough as a teenager, experiencing that.

Emily: --it was more from adults than from teens.

Jim: Yeah.

Emily: The school that I went to was the same school, kindergarten right through high school. So, they knew me as "Emily" and it really wasn't until I got to college that I realized how famous my dad actually was. (Laughter) You'd think I would know that. But all of a sudden, everyone knew I was coming to college and I didn't know anyone and they were all staring and looking. And I thought--

Jim: Wow.

Emily: --oh, my goodness! I'm just me; what are you looking at? So, you know, it was a little bit awkward.

Jim: Had to be. But now you are an author in your own right. You've written a new book that is coming out just now. It's called Dancing with Max. And really, that's what we want to talk about today, both from your perspective, Emily, as Max's mom and also with you Chuck, as Max's grandfather. Tell us a bit about Max and that story.

Emily: Oh, I have this amazing 19-year-old son, Max. He is autistic and I've seen the toughest of autism and I've seen the most beautiful side of autism.

Jim: Help us understand that statement. Some parents that don't have an autistic child, won't even comprehend how you can say that or what you're saying. What does that mean?

Emily: Well, autism can be extremely challenging and there are families who are struggling every day and yet, what I've seen in Max is that, this boy that others might dismiss, has the power to affect others in such a deep and beautiful way, that it almost washes over the difficulties.

Jim: How does that express itself in a child with autism? How does that beauty come out, where you see the special very unique expressions?

Emily: I see Max bring compassion out in others. I see people step out of their own comfort zone and into ours and do the most extraordinary things. And I see Max's purity, his freshness affect others, almost undo other people. You can't pretend things with Max. You can't put on airs and think that he'll be impressed by certain things. He isn't. He's impressed when you spend time with him, when you approach him and show interest in him. And it's a very refreshing thing to be around someone that doesn't pass judgment on you.

Jim: Emily, what is the definition of autism? How did you, as a new mom, how did you see some things that were happening with Max that alerted you, perhaps there was something a little different? Help us understand that.

Emily: Uh-hm. Autism is a neurological disorder. It now affects one in every 110 children, which is staggering.

Jim: Um.

Emily: It affects all areas of development, from fine motor, gross motor, communication. It affects social issues, which sound like such a small thing, but it's enormous. His ability to process information is affected. Max has huge anxiety, because it's difficult for him to put the pieces together--cause and effect and how life sequences itself. He can't really put those things together.

I noticed very early. Max was 4-months-old when I realized that he not only didn't make eye contact, but he refused to make eye contact.

Jim: Hm.

Emily: He didn't babble. He didn't seem to want to speak or interact with other people.

Jim: And that lasted for quite some time, for two or three more years, correct?

Emily: Oh, it lasted for a long time. He had a few words maybe at 3. And then when he began to speak, it was in these odd little connections of words. He would repeat what I would say. So, when he wanted juice, he would say what I would say, "Want some juice?" And so, he was just mimicking whatever I would say.

Jim: Right.

Emily: So, his language never developed as typical kids develop language.

Jim: And Chuck, as the grandfather, you're seeing your daughter, Emily and you're seeing Max. What feelings are you having as a grandfather?

Chuck: Well, in the early days, because Emily's a single mom, her husband left and so, she's raised Max alone. And there's an incredible anxiety on the part of a dad who wants to protect his little girl--

Jim: Hm.

Chuck: --this sweet little girl. And so, I watched her go through this in raising Max and watched the struggles and watched Max['s] meltdowns. We called them "tantrums," basically is what they were. He'd just lose control, 'cause he couldn't process that information.

He had to teach me a whole new way to approach him, because you know, I'm the big Christian guy and everybody listens to me. Well, Max wasn't impressed by that. (Laughter) And it was only when I got down on my knees and I started to play with him as a kid, that you know, we began to develop a real relationship.

So, I went through publicly eight, 10 years and longer, really worried about my daughter, really concerned for Emily's welfare. That's a very hard thing for a dad to go through, really hard. But my regard for her as a human being, in addition to my love for her, grew because I watched her give herself completely unconditionally to this kid.

And then, I watched her grow in her Christian faith in the most profound ways. And then, I saw Max become the unexpected blessings and like the woman who called in earlier, you wouldn't trade this for anything. And he can speak to people in ways that we can't. It's amazing. It's a real paradox. Emily's life teaches us that there is no failure that you can't really overcome with God--

Jim: Amen.

Chuck: --that life has meaning and purpose, even when you don't think it does, that the things that happen to you in life that are the worst things, could turn out to be the greatest blessings. I've seen what Max has done with Emily and with so many other people. It's amazing.

Program Note:

John: Well, God speaks in so many different ways through so many different people and Jim Daly is talking today on "Focus on the Family" with the late Chuck Colson and his daughter, Emily about the ways that God has used Max in their lives. And here at Focus, we do believe in the value of every life and we've got a campaign and a website to help you better understand those in the special-needs community and those with disabilities. We've got videos, articles, free downloads and more. We'll link over to all of that at or call us and we can tell you more, 800-A-FAMILY. Let's go ahead and continue now, the late Chuck Colson and his daughter, Emily Colson on today's "Focus on the Family.

End of Program Note

Jim: What have you seen, Emily, not just from the church community, but from people just broadly? We don't understand when Max is throwin' a fit. We don't understand all that background. What could you--

Emily: Right.

Jim: --say to us to--

Emily: Right.

Jim: --chill us out a little bit if we're in the supermarket and we just see a young boy or girl, just melting down--

Emily: Right.

Jim: --not to be so judgmental perhaps?

Emily: Well, I'm gonna tell you the nicest thing that anyone ever did to me, a stranger out in a grocery store. Max was about 9 and I know all about those tantrums. This was almost a daily routine for us at one point in our lives. And Max was on the floor of the grocery. I was very daring, taking him to the grocery. We went years without going to the grocery store, but sometimes you get hungry and you have to go to the grocery store.

He was on the floor in a tantrum. I'm hunched over him, trying to calm him, trying to figure out, how do I get him out? He was 9. I couldn't pick him up. That worked when he was younger, but it just wasn't working any more. And as I was leaning over Max, trying to calm him down, I could see feet coming up, stopping and walking around. And then, from the other side, stopping. I knew they were staring, walking by. And finally, I saw these feet come up and stop.

And I thought, "Oh no! Okay, get a better look. Fine! I don't have time for you." I finally looked up and she said, "How can I help?" Well, I was so overwhelmed at that point, that I had no idea what to do myself, let alone tell someone else what to do. I didn't answer her. I looked back down at Max and just kept trying to figure the situation out, but her feet didn't move.

Jim: Hm.

Emily: She just stayed there. And I finally looked back at her again and she said, "I'll just be here until you think of something."

Jim: Hm.

Emily: That was the most beautiful thing anyone did for me and it's exactly what our families need, just be there. She didn't know anything about autism. She just saw a mom and a child in trouble and she said, "I'm not leaving. There is a problem here. I'm not gonna gawk." And we did find a way to move out of the grocery together. But boy, what a powerful lesson that was. She didn't have a solution. She didn't come and say, "I have a Ph.D. in autism; I know how to help you."

Jim: Right.

Emily: She just stayed there.

Jim: That's beautiful. I mean, what a great lesson for those of us that aren't dealing with that situation, to be able to stand there and--

Emily: Uh-hm and--

Jim: --not move.

Emily: --many times I think parents are so overwhelmed by their situation, not just in a tantrum, but with life, with autism, that when someone comes up and says, "Let me know if you need any help," we kind of give them that blank stare, because we're thinking, I don't even know how you could possibly help me. This is so big and so huge and I don't know how to manage it myself. And so, people go off and we don't necessarily call of them. But that close proximity when someone comes in and just says, "I'm here" is where we are able to then access someone's help.

Jim: It helps. There was a close family friend. I think her name was Patty--

Emily: Yes.

Jim: --who helped you in immeasurable ways it seems, in reading the book.

Emily: She did.

Jim: What did Patty say to you, this friend that really made a difference for you?

Emily: Oh, Patty was truly remarkable and she knew from the moment I called her and told her that Max was autistic, she processed it with me a little bit on the phone. And then, she said to me, "Emily, God works through these children. Max is a gift. These children are a gift."

And my response to her was, "I know; I know. I'm crazy about Max. I love him." And she said, "No, this might take you a little time to discover."

John: Hm.

Emily: And she was right. Boy, were her words correct. She knew.

Jim: Hm. Chuck, in all that, being Grandpa to Max, how were you processing this? How were you stepping up to be the grandfather you needed to be, seeing Emily and what was happening for you and Patty, your wife?

Chuck: One of the things I've learned through all of this, Jim and it's amazing how you learn 'em the hard way. I wasn't the dad I should've been when these kids were growing up, my kids. And I've tried to make up for lost time and lost ground. But Emily and Max did something for me that let me see how important this was in my life. It really changed my life and I today would put on the scale of priorities in my own life, the most important thing in the world after my relationship with Christ, is my relationship with my family. I had never really appreciated that.

But getting on the ground with Max and helping this guy understand things and seeing this extraordinary love and then seeing my daughter give this love, give her love and see our whole family pull together, everybody in the family, effected by it, has been one of the real great blessings of my life. And so, I'm grateful for all that people would look at as a tough time, has been for me, life changing and changing priorities--

Jim: But Chuck ...

Chuck: --and seeing things I couldn't see before.

Jim: Chuck, you're saying somethin' very important to fathers right here.

Chuck: Yeah.

Jim: And that is, what I'm hearing from you is, make sure you have your first principles, your--

Chuck: Amen.

Jim: --first principles.

Emily: Uh-hm.

Jim: It's not your career; it's your family.

Chuck: I'm a crusader on this, because I was so determined in the Marines. I was gone all the time. And then in the politics, I was consumed with politics and I got caught up in the great cause of changing the world. And that all came crashing down on me and I realized how much I had missed in my life. And that's why I'm a crusader today, to tell dads, "Don't miss what I missed."

Jim: Yeah. Well said.

Emily: And Max is really the only one that can get my dad to stop working for a week.

Chuck: (Chuckling)

Emily: No radio programs, no writing, no phone calls.

Chuck: My agenda is Max when he's around.

Emily: It's Max.

Chuck: It's great.

Emily: And it's such a gift really to me, as well, because we do all the things now with Max that we might have done when I was a kid.

Jim: Right.

Emily: And I'm enjoying them every bit as much, to be able to share that with my dad, going to the zoo and playgrounds and parks and swimming in the pool. And so, Max has really given us both a great gift in that.

Chuck: Yep.

Jim: Well, it's obvious the love between the two of you is not lost and you've made up that ground, Chuck.

John: I was cryin' often, as I read this book and there was something you wrote that I think can speak to the church at large, to our listeners generally. When we encounter a child who is so obviously different, it's the story of you going to a car dealership--

Emily: Um.

John: --in the pouring rain.

Emily: Uh-hm.

John: And it was kind of a tale of two salesmen, if I--

Emily: Yes, it was.

John: -- can share that, because I think the principles that we can all take away from that are just priceless.

Emily: I took Max to his favorite place that he could ever go, which is to go see Volvos in a Volvo showroom (Laughter), not knowing what would really happen. Here's this young boy. He's pretty excitable and you never quite know what's gonna happen. It's very unpredictable.

And he's there to see the new S70 that just came out, came out that day, so we had planned this. He was very motivated to be able to do this. And as soon as we walked in, of course, one salesman swaggered toward me, thinking, "Alright, we got a sale." And I'm trying to hold back from explaining that we don't want to buy a car; we just want to sit in the car. (Laughter)

Again, they're not really gonna get that. So, I was a little cool about the whole thing and was entertaining his questions. Meanwhile, Max bolted into this car, this Volvo as soon as he opened the door, sat inside and started jumping up and down in this brand-new seat. And I'm thinking, this is trouble (Laughter) here. We're gonna get kicked out.

And just then, another salesman came around the corner and sat beside Max and I ran around and looked in and thought, "Uh-oh, he's probably gonna try to stop Max from touching things" and he didn't. He got all excited about Max and Max is pointing to things. And the other salesman, Chip, is responding, saying, "Yes, Max, that's a radio" And Max is saying "visor" and Chip is saying, "Visor."

And they're going through the car, just pointing to every little detail. Max is so excited to be there. And Chip is just sitting with Max.

Jim: Ah.

Emily: And at one point I said, "I'm sure, Chip has something he needs to do. And you know, we should really let him go, Max." And he said, "Oh, no. I'm fine. I don't have anything more important to do. Max is having the time of his life." And he was just sharing. I think they were in there for an hour, playing in that--

Jim: Wow.

Emily: --Volvo. There was no sale. And so, as we got to talking, I realized that he had an autistic nephew.

Jim and John: Hm.

Emily: And as I probed a little bit and said, "How's he doing?" he kind of looked away and he said, "I don't see him much. I don't see my sister much. It's been really hard for her." And I was able to encourage him then to say, "Your sister really needs you." And what he did for Max was the most beautiful gift. I mean--

Jim: Hm.

Emily: --that's what families with autistic kids need. We just need someone to come along beside us and just "be." You don't have to know anything about autism. You don't have to be an expert. No parent is going to say, "Thank you for offering help. I'd like you now to take care of my child for the next three weeks," but to just be there. There's so much that people that don't have autistic kids can do by just being there. If someone offered to partner with a family and said, "Would it be all right if I just called you once a week to check in? And if there's something I can do for you, I don't know anything about autism, but if there's something I can do, you'll know you'll get a call from me. And if there's something, then I'll be happy to jump in." Or "I'm going to the grocery store--

Jim: Uh-hm.

Emily: --on Tuesday. If you give me a list, I'll be happy to get your groceries."

Jim: Hm.

Emily: Or "Could I come to a doctor's appointment with you and help with your child?" because it's really hard to do that solo.

John: Uh-hm.

Emily: And there's a lot of information to take in. There's so many things that people can do to support the mom or dad that's dealing with autism, that doesn't feel quite so scary as, "I'm gonna help this child with autism." But by helping the family, by helping the parents or even the siblings, there's the opportunity for people to become more comfortable and familiar with the child and relationships (Sound of snap of fingers) develop. You could transform a family's life if you offered to partner with them--

Jim: That's really the love--

Emily: --transform.

Jim: --of Jesus. Yeah.

Emily: It is.

Jim: It is. Emily and Chuck, we have just gotten started here today. We're already out of time and I'd like to just keep it rolling, if you're able and let's continue to talk and we'll let everybody hear it next time.

Emily: Sure, we'd love that.

Chuck: Yeah, Jim, very much so, thank you for this.

Emily: Thank you.

Jim: Let's do that.

Emily: Thank you.


John: Well, this is a subject that is very close to my heart and I trust that it's helped you better understand what families like ours are dealing with when a child has autism. And of course, it's a very broad spectrum with a range of abilities and disabilities. And since this program was recorded back about four or five years ago, there have been some changes in the statistical understanding of autism. Now they're estimating that 1 in 68 children are on the spectrum and the number of Americans affected is about 3.5 million. It's a big issue and it affects so many.

I know that you've appreciated the late Chuck Colson and his daughter, Emily and their insights and stories about Max. And so, please make sure you're here with us tomorrow for the conclusion of the conversation.

And please listen again or get the CD or download and Emily's poignant beautiful book called Dancing with Max, when you're at And when you sign up to be a financial supporter of Focus on the Family, when you make a gift online or over the phone, we'll send Emily's book to you as our way of saying thank you for supporting our efforts to undergird and help families who are dealing with difficulties, as Emily shared today. Get resources and make a donation please when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY, 800-232-6459.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, I'm John Fuller, inviting you back next time, as we'll hear more from Emily Colson and her father, the late Chuck Colson, as they share more insights and stories about Max and once again, offer encouragement to help your family thrive.

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More Episode Resources


Emily Colson

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Emily Colson is an author, a public speaker, and an advocate for persons with disabilities. In her book Dancing with Max – awarded "Book of the Year" by the Austism Society – Emily and her father, the late Chuck Colson, share the struggle and beauty of life with Emily’s son with autism, Max. Emily has told her story of hope throughout churches nationwide, as well as on numerous media outlets. She is passionate about engaging families affected by disability within the church. Emily currently serves on the President's Committee for People With Intellectual Disabilities and on several ministry boards including The Colson Center for Christian Worldview and Your Options Medical Pregnancy Centers. Emily has been a single mother for most of Max’s life, and currently resides in the New England area. Learn more about Emily by visiting her website,


Charles Colson

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Chuck Colson (1931-2012) was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, a Christian outreach to inmates, ex-inmates, crime victims and their families. He was also the founder and chairman of The Chuck Colson Center for Worldview which seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending the Christian worldview. Well-known as the aide to former President Richard Nixon, Chuck was also popular as an author, speaker and as a commentator for the nationally syndicated radio broadcast "BreakPoint." Chuck is survived by his wife, Patty, their three children and several grandchildren.