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La Cañada High School

Opinion: Coughing on the road to Emmaus — living with autism and dyspraxia

“While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” (Luke 24:15-16).

My friends and I were having a Bible study on the story about the road to Emmaus where Jesus explained how Scripture pertained to Him as He walked alongside two of his followers after His resurrection. The intriguing catch to the story was that Jesus didn’t reveal his identity until the end of the walk, where in the breaking of the bread, he allowed them to recognize Him for just a moment, then vanished (Luke 24:30-31).

Our Bible study leader asked us, “What do you learn about God from this story?”

“It shows God is sneaky,” one of my friends, Darron said.

Another friend, Otto, disagreed.

“I don’t think God is sneaky. I don’t think He intentionally hides from us,” Otto said. “I think it’s all our distractions in the world that are sneaky, and hide God from us.”

My Bible study friends and I all have autism with severe dyspraxia, meaning poor motor control. We are nonverbal, so we type to communicate. We have plenty of challenges that might distract us from God. The question of whether distractions keep us away from God, or if God is intentionally sneaky made me think of something that had just happened to me earlier that morning in church.

Two of my brothers, my mom, and my dad were sitting in Church, enjoying the beautiful music when suddenly I felt a telltale trickle down the back of my throat. The same dyspraxia that makes it difficult for me to talk makes me swallow down the wrong pipe sometimes. I opened my mouth and gasped for air, but saliva went down instead.

That started it, an explosive series of coughs hurling 90 mile-an-hour gunshots of air that reverberated throughout the entire sanctuary. My mom quickly handed me a thermos of hot tea she keeps handy for such occasions. “Take a sip, Peter, please!” she murmured.

But this time the tea didn’t work. More coughing ensued; more shock waves bounced off the walls and ceiling. A few kids turned their heads to look, but no adults. St. Bede’s is used to me, and even the head of the poor lady directly in front of me, bearing the brunt of the explosions, remained perfectly still, as if non-plussed.

My dad got my mom and me up to leave. My mom went ahead, heading out the vestibule doors, then I, holding tightly onto her arm with one hand, the other covering my face, trying to shield my eyes from too much visual processing that would have expended the mental energy I needed to keep walking. Dad guarded our retreat from the rear.

In the lobby, it was cool, dim, and quiet. Dad was all for striding out briskly to the car, but I hesitated. Mom followed my gaze to the warm glow of candles before a tile image of Our Lady of Guadalupe which hangs in a vestibule side chapel. I planted myself on a bench in the vestibule next to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I love that image.

Mary wears a mantle of bright royal blue, my favorite color. She is “clothed by the sun,” radiating gloriously behind her “with the moon under her feet,” (Rev. 12:1).

There I sat, soaking in the serenity of the Virgin Mary till I heard the strains of music announcing the start of Communion. Then I pulled my mom back into the sanctuary.

We walked through the double doors and joined the flow of the faithful proceeding from the back to front pews, a tide of heads bowed and hands clasped in prayer. I gave one last cough as I neared the front of the line. Not to worry — the Eucharistic ministers all know me. This one watched me, waiting for just the right moment when I had finished my cough, then adroitly popped the Bread of Life right into my mouth as I tilted my head slightly back. Those Eucharistic ministers are the best; they don’t miss a beat! She smiled as Mom said, ”Amen!” for me. We bowed to the Precious Blood and walked back down the aisle.

After receiving Communion, my dad would have kept us walking right out the door, but I saw my brothers sitting in the congregation and sat down beside them. After all, that’s where I belong. Mom knelt down to pray beside me. Mass ended, and people started standing up to file out the door.

But one implacably steady head of dark hair was still in her place in the pew in front of us. Mom lightly tapped her on the shoulder.

“I have to apologize for Peter’s coughing, and thank you for being so patient,” my mom said as she introduced herself.

A pair of warm grey eyes looked back at us in surprise, as she shook my mother’s hand.

”I’m Serena,” she said. “Why, not at all! He didn’t disturb me a bit! I have a grandson, you know, with both autism and seizures. I have only great respect for parents who have children with cognitive challenges.”

“Oh, don’t give me such credit; that would not be me,” said Mom, with a twinkle in her eyes.

She whisked out an index card from her purse with the alphabet printed on it.

”Thank you so much, Serena, for your kind understanding,” I typed as I watched as a slow, wide smile of astonishment and realization spread across her face.

“Oh, my goodness, I had no idea!”

I love it when that happens, when people shed their assumptions that motor impairment equals cognitive impairment, and finally see you for who you are. Serena continued to tell us all about her family and their experiences with autism. By the time we shook hands and parted, I felt we had made a new friend.

So what would have happened had I let the “distractions of autism” like my cough and anxiety derail my desire to stay in church? I would have missed meeting up with Jesus in Communion and my new friend, Serena. It’s a struggle for me to deal with autism and all the sensory overload and dyspraxia that form its accoutrements. But the fight is well worth it, lest I miss Christ passing by.

Sometimes, I wonder why I have autism. Why is life so full of difficulties? Once in a while, we make a triumphant breakthrough or meet a new, fantastic person in the midst of our battles, and God appears for a flash till he hides again behind more obstacles. Then it dawned on me how much He’s allowing me to grow and giving me the opportunity to get to know Him, not in spite of the struggles but precisely through them. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d seek him out and depend upon Him as much as I do if I didn’t need Him so desperately.

So, I guess I have to agree with both of my friends.

Yes, Otto, we have to keep persevering, so we don’t let the “distractions” or obstacles keep us away from Jesus.

And yes, Darron, I do also believe that God is sneaky.