I want to get baptized too.
Six powerful words.
And six words that were communicated purposefully, accurately, and simply. They were not to be ignored.
It was an ordinary weekday evening. My husband, my son, and I were attending a weekly Bible study. During the break, we met someone who was seated nearby. Our small talk became larger talk as we conversed about our sons. As Robert Frost wrote, “…way leads on to way,” we found ourselves talking about baptism. The deeper we dove, the more I felt a stirring within; something in my heart that told me I wanted to get baptized.
I received the sacrament of baptism in a Catholic church as an infant. Water sprinkled on the forehead was the act of “christening” which symbolized being saved. (Not that I remember this! I have the faded, square Polaroid pictures though). Babies had been customarily christened for centuries; fears of deadly diseases striking infants led parents to baptize within weeks of birth. Naturally, babies are unaware of the significance baptism may hold for them. With a relatively recent understanding of what it means to be baptized, I wanted to honor my belief and anchor my faith with Jesus.
Through that powerful conversation, we found out the church was holding a baptism at a local pool that Sunday!
Arriving home that night, I had a sense of anticipation not unlike that of a child who realizes that Christmas is only four days away. I had occasional thoughts of getting baptized by immersion but did not know where one goes for such a thing. To find out just days before a baptism that it was being offered right down the street set my heart aglow.
But something else happened that night when we arrived home. Little did we know at first, but someone was listening to the entire conversation. We are continually reminded that he’s always listening and comprehending.
I wasn’t the only one wanting to get baptized Sunday. Our son, Zach, who is non-speaking and is learning Spelling2Communicate®, indicated that he wanted to do some spelling. As is our routine, we grabbed a magazine to initiate a lesson. Quickly, Zach rejected it. He set it down carefully and instead gravitated toward a small pamphlet that arrived in the mail. The cover portrayed a baptism by water immersion; just what we were talking about.
Zach was insistent about using this pamphlet for spelling. So my husband followed his lead.
“OK, Zach, we can use that if you’d like,” he agreed. He began asking Zach about the photo.
“What do you see in this picture?”
Zach carefully spelled a woman getting baptized.
“Can you give me a definition of baptism?” Zach spelled it means to accept Jesus in your life.
“Who is getting baptized on Sunday? We talked about this at church.” Mom wants to get baptized Sunday.
Sensing some urgency around this topic, my husband pursued. Zach’s focus was keen.
“Do you want to get baptized?” Without hesitation, Zach vigorously nodded yes. (His nod, ever since his beloved OT taught him this skill in kindergarten, has been very reliable).
My husband paused a moment, and then said, “Zach, can you spell that out?” With the stencil board in front of him, Zach meticulously spelled out I want to get baptized too.
It was an extraordinary moment. One that surprised us, yet really did not. Zach had been attending church since birth. For a long stretch of time, he would point to crosses wherever he saw them. And even if it wasn’t a proper cross, but had the shape of a cross, he’d recognize it and show us.
It’s been many years, but there was also a time when Zach would spot pictures of Jesus and point to them. He went through a beard phase, where any time he spotted a man with a beard, it had to be pointed out. (This was not necessarily a delightful phase; people naturally don’t appreciate having some kid pointing to their face, especially when it’s the middle finger doing the pointing). So seeing and recognizing paintings of Jesus may have had, early on, connection to the beard. However, later in life, we could ask him to identify Jesus among an array of pictures, and he would, with 100% accuracy.
Back when he was 14, he had a grand mal seizure on Thanksgiving night. It was horrendous to witness. Some days later, we spoke to friends about this; their adult daughter experienced seizures, and they could relate to our fear. I will always remember what they told us, as it has provided comfort and some alleviation of that fear during subsequent seizures: Jesus was right there with him. Prior to that, I had never considered that Jesus would be with someone in that way. I had once maintained that Jesus was distant and even removed from our experiences here in this earthly realm.
Our friends’ words had impact. So much so, that after the next seizure, when Zach regained consciousness, I gently told him what occurred and softly reminded him that Jesus was with him. A young boy who did not readily make eye contact made direct eye contact with me. Sustained eye contact. The look sent tingles down my spine. I asked him quietly, “Zach, was Jesus with you? Did you see him?” He put his delicate fingers on my chin, never glanced away, and nodded yes.
I want to get baptized too.
He was listening to the conversation with the man at church. He heard and understood my intentions to get baptized. He had given it thought. And, when he figured out a way to express it, he clearly and purposefully told us what he wanted to do.
I decided to give our pastor a call. I wanted the baptism to go well for Zach, and I, not only as Mom, but as someone all-too-familiar with all-things-autism, knew that without some preparation, this event had potential to go very badly. I wanted a plan for both Zach and our pastor.
Instantly, I knew it was going to be fine. I was met with complete acceptance and gracious openness. My ecstatic here-comes-Christmas-morning feeling was now doubled! Zach would be joining me in the pool.
The day before the baptism, we were swimming. Northern California was enduring one of its mid-summer heat waves, and after running errands in blazing heat, we needed a cool-down. It was then that a wave of concern washed over me. Zach does not like to be underwater. I had overlooked this.
When he had swimming lessons, he went underwater a lot. He was even manatee-like in his behavior – wanting to just hang out totally submerged in the shallow end for as long as his breath could be held. One year, an enthusiastic (and strong) swim instructor named Bobby would end the 30-minute lessons by launching the little ones in the air so they’d fly up and splash cannonball style in the deep end. Zach couldn’t get enough.
But, something changed as he grew up. He reached a point where he no longer liked to go under. He did not want anyone throwing him in, nor did he seek the bottom of the pool as a hangout. His manatee days were over.
I realized that even though we discussed how to prepare Zach for the pool in terms of what to say, where to enter the water, etc., we didn’t address exactly how to submerge him. Sometimes when we swim around, I twirl him or “dance” with him, and to keep his trust, I’ve promised him I would never dunk him without his permission. My stomach knotted over thoughts that Zach would simultaneously seek baptism but ultimately resist out of fear.
About a hundred people were gathered around the calm waters of the pool as the sun began setting. The pastor spoke and invited anyone who wanted to be baptized to sit on the edge of the pool. Zach and I sat and watched intently as others came forward to receive this blessing. Zach’s vocalizations displayed his excitement.
I narrated what was happening, and I specifically pointed out each person going under the water and coming right back up. I whispered in his ear that the people were held, and they were safe. That the pastor would not let anyone fall. I helped him to see how happy the people were as they stood up. Each time, his head nodded in understanding.
Our pastor and I planned for me to precede Zach, so he could watch me first. It was a most joyful moment. The downy white clouds framing the bright yellow sun amplified that joy.
Then, the pastor beckoned Zach. He eagerly slid from the edge and swam over to him, unprompted and unassisted. My husband was near, and Zach was not opposed to his presence, so he stayed. After a prayer, the pastor held Zach’s left hand. Dad came up next to him and held his right hand. And with a slow, gentle motion, Zach was submerged. Almost.
From my vantage point, it looked wonderful. No struggle, no swimming off in a panic. But, I noticed when he stood that the hair above his forehead was dry. Dad said he put the brakes on before his eyes went under. When Zach was hoisted up, he had a huge smile on his face. He smoothed his half-wet-half-dry hair back, swam back over to me, and lifted himself to the pool’s edge.
“Did you like that?” I whispered. His smile, with full-on dimples, and a twinkle in his eye gave me the answer. “You didn’t go all the way under, and that’s perfectly okay.” I side-hugged him. He nodded and vocalized what sounded like uh-huh.
The immersions continued, and Zach applauded for each person. The now very low sun cast a golden glow on the water and the people all around us. And then something else happened that took us by surprise.
People were just hanging out and talking, hugging, taking pictures. The younger kids began a game of Marco Polo. And on the other end, a line formed for the diving boards. Zach’s attention was drawn to those boards.
“Do you want to go watch people on the diving boards?” Yes.
We sauntered over and watched people make graceful (and not so graceful) dives into the deep end. When Zach gets a certain look in his eyes, I can usually determine what that means. I inquired.
“Zach, do you want to jump off the diving board too?”
I smoothed my own wet hair. “You do want to go up there and jump in the water?”
It was as clear and intentional a response as when he replied to do you want to get baptized? In fact, he marched to the back of the line and inched up appropriately.
I turned to look at the sunset and noticed that some onlookers were pointing to Zach. Recognizing their faces, I shrugged, smiled, and said a prayer in my heart that Zach would be safe.
He knew just what to do. He climbed the five steps and slowly approached the edge. About a foot from the tip, he stopped. He craned his neck and put his arms out for balance. He looked down, stood straight up, and backed away. The crowd went silent. I curled my toes over the blue tile. If he wanted to retreat and climb down, it was his call. No one was telling him what to do. His choice.
He inched his bare feet to the end of the board. He looked down while his fingers splayed and twitched. In autism land, we used to call it revving the motorcycle. Whether that was the tingle of excitement or the pulse of fear, we did not know.
There was silence. He just stood there. And we all waited. He did not step back. He did not look to us for direction. He stared down. Then, the dry portion of his hair lifted up as he flew for a split second above the water. His arms fanned out like bird wings. I watched his underwater, ballet-like movement. And up he came.
The crowd cheered and hollered. I caught his eye as he swam to the ladder; talk about nonverbal communication!
He walked right through the cheering crowd to retrieve his Angry Birds beach towel. The look on his face revealed equal parts of exhilaration and shock. But the way he walked to the locker room revealed newly found pride. Was it new life found through baptism? Was it his way of immersing himself more fully? Was it a personal memorialization of what he expressed desire for and accomplished?
Living with autism, particularly on the more severe end of the spectrum, inherently means that many decisions in life are just not yours to be made. There can be a profound lack of options when facing life with ASD. And although I hate to say it, it is the stark reality for individuals who may not fully understand dangerous circumstances: they have to be accompanied and supervised 99.99% of the time.
Such accompaniment and supervision restricts one’s capacity to make decisions. In situations and conditions where a choice can be his, we love giving Zach the freedom to choose. You should see him go when we reach the part of the bike trail where he can take the lead. We can barely keep up!
So, Zach took the lead when it came to wanting to get baptized. If he hadn’t truly wanted to, he would not have been so insistent about spelling it out that night after Bible study. He would have backed away from the edge of the pool when the time came. He would have resisted getting in the water. He would not have swum directly to the pastor, nor stood willingly at his side, nor held his hand. If we had urged him at any point, in light of any hesitancy, he would have surely nodded no if he chose not to. One of his strong suits is his will power.
Same goes for the diving board. To witness his intention in action is a beautiful thing. Throughout the world, humans equate a non-speaking person with a non-thinking person. All too often, verbal language becomes the measuring stick by which humankind calculates intelligence. I believe people like Zach are changing that paradigm. It may be slow to change, but it’s necessary, and it’s happening. He, and others like him, need our patience, our acceptance, and our open minds in order to see this through. Then, when more have been touched by this shift, and perhaps transformed in their view, the world changes. It may be a rebirth that this world desperately needs to tip the scales in favor of love and true acceptance for everyone living with a disability.
Subscribe to Blog via Email