When it comes to religion, I am neither here, nor ... religious. I was raised in the predominant religion of our region, but have since left to find my own way.
My former husband is still a member, and I have supported our two boys in whatever religion they choose.
My younger son, who is autistic, as many of you know, recently got the priesthood. I was there when he served the sacrament for the first time. He was doing OK until he got to the back of the congregation. That’s when he got a little confused and lost track of his tray. I watched him as he threw his hands up, glanced around, then threw his hands up again, muttering, “What the—. What the—.” It was as if the tray, in his mind, had just vanished into thin air.
The next week he served the sacrament, he dropped off the tray at one end of the row, and then said loudly, “You have until the count of five and then I’m leaving.”
Don’t get me wrong. The kid loves serving the sacrament. In fact, he loves anything that comes with an age requirement. At 12, you serve the sacrament. At 16, you get your license. At 18 you are an adult.
But he also loves his own interests. Autism comes with a host of issues, both good and difficult. He can tell you what day your birthday will fall on, for any given year, but mostly he will tell you about cats, because cats are what he’s interested in right now.
Over a year ago (on Nov. 19, 2018, to be exact) I randomly mentioned to him that I’d seen a news story that scientists are working on a cure for peanut allergies.
He is allergic to peanuts. Little did I realize what this casual aside would mean to him.
Since then, he has tracked the scientists, tracked the stories, studied the FDA and talked about it to everyone from his aunts and uncles to the woman who works at 7-Eleven. (The other day, I picked him up from 7-Eleven, and the woman said he had lined up all of the Reese’s peanut butter products in order of which ones he would eat first when the cure came.)
Getting him to open up isn’t hard. But we have to make efforts to get him to take an interest in other people. Empathy often doesn’t come naturally in autistic kids.
“Say goodbye back,” we say.
“They asked you a question, ask one back,” we say.
“Remember it’s Tuesday, and Tuesday is the day we don’t talk to everyone about cats,” we say.
My father passed away from cancer eight years ago. My mother is a cancer survivor. The other day, my kid sent me a link to an article about a company that guaranteed a cure for cancer in a year. (Of course I hope it’s true, but I don’t believe it.)
Then he called me.
Him: “Did you get my text?”
Me: “Yes. Why did you send it?”
Him: “Because I knew that your dad had cancer and your mom had cancer and you were interested in cancer. So I Googled ‘cancer,’ but I didn’t like what I saw. So I Googled ‘cure for cancer’ and I found this.”
At this point my breath caught. He had done this not out of self-interest, but out of empathy. Empathy that wasn’t forced upon him. Empathy that wasn’t a reminder or an assignment.
Him: “If you were having a bad day, and I sent this to you, would it make you happy?”
Me: “Well, actually I was having a bad day because I burned my arm.” (It was a grease burn and it hurt like a... well, that’s a story for another column.)
Him: “So this made you happy?”
Me: “Yes. So happy.”
Him: “Read it and then text me your thoughts.”
Little does he know that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put my thoughts about this particular act into words. Words aren’t adequate.
Brodi Ashton is a New York Times best-selling author who lives in the Salt Lake City area. She’s also an occasional columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune.