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My Son Sam, His Caregivers, and Our Circle of Grace

December 23, 2019
My Son Sam, His Caregivers, and Our Circle of Grace

Whatever rewards our material world reserves for intellect, agility, beauty, showmanship, and business acumen, there is a higher gift. A gift that is accompanied by no riches, nor cause for boasting.

But through it, the giver and the receiver feel the warmth and life-changing power of grace. I have seen it in my own life and through the works of those who are blessed with its power.

My elder son Sam is 9-years-old and has high-functioning autism. Life is difficult for him, and always will be. But with the right help and support, he will have a life of his own, independent and filled with moments of joy and discovery.

Getting to this moment has demanded the most from my loving wife Liz and our family, especially Sam’s younger brother Pete. And we have many years to go on this journey.

Sam could not be where he is without the grace of teachers, doctors, nurses, aides, and a cast of others who have taken an extra moment, or many moments, to help him.

Joan Wehking was his kindergarten teacher at Mary Queen of Peace in St. Louis. She didn’t know much about working with kids on the autism spectrum. So she went to special needs classes at other schools, took notes, and adopted those lessons so Sam could progress with his classmates. She did this all on her own time—she didn’t earn an extra cent for this effort.

Then there is Cindy Summers, a classroom teacher who stays with Sam after school once a week to tutor him. She advocates for Sam at school and makes sure all of his teachers know how he learns best and where he might struggle more.

Dr. John Constantino at Washington University has worked with Sam from the age of 4. He’s a national leader in autism research and patient care and his time is in constant demand, yet he gives his full attention to Sam during their appointments and connects with him on a deeper level than most doctors can.

Then there is Sam’s autism therapy coach, Mandi Colbert. She’s been in Sam’s life since his diagnosis five years ago. She works with Sam at her office as well as our home, and goes, on her own time, to see how he’s doing at school.

None of these people are volunteers. But their efforts and care cannot be explained by our normal notions about careers. Rather, these people are all motivated by grace—the exercise of spiritual strength on behalf of another person.

Grace is not a physical act; nor is it a self-contained moment of moral intent. It is what is shared between one person and another—when one person leans toward another for no purpose but to follow in the works of God.

Grace is mankind’s mimicry of God, and that is why it is best witnessed between the strong and the weak, the powerful and the vulnerable.

Sam receives grace with joy. Autism is a strange and powerful condition. We are making progress in understanding it and treating it. And we know that a child with autism is as spiritually gifted as any other. It seems possible that because of their sensitivities and challenges, a child with autism has an elevated awareness of spiritual exchange and moments of grace.

Which may be why children with autism often love animals. With an animal, the child is the one with the power. And in taking care of an animal, the child with autism is reflecting what he has felt: that grace is his to give and not just receive, just as God has given it to us.

In our case, we brought home a puppy, Hannah, a month ago, and Sam immediately took to her. He treats her as a member of the family and takes very good care of her. And so Hannah, too, is part of Sam’s circle of grace.

“Miracle in Me,” a hymn by the Bowman Family, declares that faith is the belief “measured by the smallest mustard seed; all our mountains will be mastered by the master of our needs.” To the child with autism, each day is a mountain.

Grace is evidence that God will do what He has foretold, in His scripture and in His song and in His servants, to place in every heart the capacity to provide healing, guidance, and boundless love.

Sam has seen that grace and felt that love. To face the mountain of autism, it takes resources and research, and I know our family is fortunate in those things. But we have been fortunate as well to receive the love and support of family, friends, and others in our community. This grace gives Sam the full dignity that is the right of every person, no matter the mountains they must master.

Thomas Chiapelas

Thomas Chiapelas serves on the board of a Jesuit high school in St. Louis.