How I’m Learning To Walk With Autism

My sister Vanessa is 3 years younger than me, and has autism.

When my parents first told me about Vanessa, I was too young to comprehend what “autism” actually means. But at some point – I think when I was about 12 years old – it hit me: I was going to have to be responsible for her for the rest of my life.

That knowledge isn’t a fun thing to have for a 12-year old. I became extremely resentful at Vanessa for her “condition”, at my parents for thrusting this “burden” on me, and at God. I’d often angrily pray at church, “Why can’t we just have a normal life like all my other friends?” I spent most of my teens and twenties being hostile towards my family – I was a classic version of the angry teenager.

Then there were the stares. 15 years ago, people didn’t know much about autism. Whenever we brought Vanessa out, I could feel everyone staring at her, whispering whenever Vanessa shouted or ran about in a shopping mall. My face would turn red, and I would walk far away from my family so I could distance myself from her.

“Passing By On The Other Side”

The rest of my life was good: I was getting good grades, I had great friends, I excelled in my extracurriculars and life was promising. I didn’t want to  have anything to do with my sister, whom I felt would tarnish the perfect life I had.

If my life was the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I was the priest and the Levite. I encountered the helpless man by the side of the road, shielded my eyes, and passed by on the other wide of the road.

However, God had other plans. I’m not sure when He started to change my mind about Vanessa. It wasn’t a flash-of-brilliance change in attitude like what St Paul experienced. Instead, God had quietly prompted me over the past few years to turn back, carry my cross… and follow Him.

Your Life Is Not About You

Yesterday, I attended “Everybody Is Special”: A Mass, talk and adoration planned for children with special needs titled . As part of the session, Fr Luke Fong gave a talk to the dozens of parents and families of kids with special needs.

His key message was this: Your life is not about you.

In other words, my life was not about my own narrowly-defined notions of success, my own selfish hopes, ambitions and dreams that would glorify ME, that would put ME at the top.

No – what God had been slowly revealing to me these past few years was that He wanted me to encapsulate the key message of today’s Gospel reading: Love your neighbour as yourself.

It’s easy to love what is aesthetically good, beautiful, and whole. But we are called to extend our love to those who can offer nothing to us in return: The man left for dead by the road, the bent auntie selling tissue paper at the MRT station, the sister with autism.

Who is my neighbour? More importantly, who can I be a neighbour to?

Helping Jesus To Carry His Cross

“Love your neighbour as yourself” – it’s easier said than done.

I won’t pretend that I’ve completely accepted that I need to embrace this cross. When Vanessa yells in the middle of the night, when she sprinkles powder over the entire living room, when she helps herself to a bottle of Coke from a store without paying for it… these are all moments which try my patience and make me wish that God would just “heal” her and take it all away.

In these moments, I think back to Fr Luke’s excellent analogy of Simon of Cyrene.

If you remember, Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to help carry the cross of Jesus on the way to Calvary. We don’t know much about how he was asked, but we can guess that it wasn’t something he was completely happy to do.

Think about it: He was just standing there, minding his own business, when this responsibility was thrust upon him. It almost seems like he was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet, he was tasked with carrying this heavy burden, suffering the humiliation of being associated with the cross: A symbol of shame. You can almost imagine the Jews mocking and laughing at him, “What has this guy done to deserve this punishment?

Yet, in this simple act of love and humbleness, Simon of Cyrene – a nobody – would be forever remembered throughout history. Politicians, kings, captains of industry and millions of Christians throughout the ages would read about him and be inspired to take up their own crosses and follow Jesus.

I pray that God will give me the strength to be a Simon of Cyrene to my sister. And I pray that He will make you, dear reader, a Simon of Cyrene to others too.


Image credit: tutincommon


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