Autism and human dignity: More than noisome pets

As you may know, Chuck Colson’s grandson, Max, is autistic, a diagnosis he shares with the son of a friend and colleague of mine.  Max got Chuck to thinking a lot about what Christians mean when they talk about human dignity.

I can’t help but wonder what Chuck would have made of a recent story from Sunnyvale, California. There, the family of an autistic child has been sued by two of their now-former neighbors for creating a public nuisance. Actually, it was their son, who is now eleven, who was regarded as the nuisance.

To be fair, the child’s autism, as the Washington Post put it, poses “social and behavioral challenges.” This conduct, in its most extreme manifestation, included “hitting, kicking and other aggression against adults or their children.”

The boy’s parents insist that they take the concerns “seriously and that either they or a caregiver provide one-on-one supervision at all times.” They also insist that portrait of their son in the complaint is “wildly exaggerated” and that their neighbors’ reactions amount to a “modern day witch hunt against a disabled child.”

Maybe the parents have a point, given that the lawsuit has continued even after both the family of the autistic child and one of the plaintiffs moved away from the neighborhood! What’s more, the complaint claims that issues with the child have had a “chilling effect on an otherwise hot real estate market.”

Jill Escher of the San Francisco Autism Society called the lawsuit “preposterous and an affront to public policy.” She called the proposal to declare a disabled child a public nuisance “extraordinary” and “unprecedented.” Well, I call it sad, and tragic.

The judge is urging both sides to settle, although having left the neighborhood, I wonder what else he thinks the autistic child’s family can do.

As you can imagine, this story hit close to home with my colleague. It’s an exaggerated version of the countless times people, often strangers, reminded him that his son didn’t fit the norm; that he, and people like him, were incorrigibly “other.”

In this case, a person is being treated as the equivalent of a barking dog, improperly-disposed of trash, and an overly sensitive car alarm.

Think about Emily Colson’s experience with Max at the movies as I told you about on BreakPoint a while back. As in Sunnyvale, the message was that these kids shouldn’t inflict their “otherness” on the rest of us.

In other words, they don’t possess inherent dignity and worth. They are tolerated, not accepted, much less welcomed.

A few weeks ago, I told you about the Greek word sunago, which is translated “welcomed” in Matthew 25. It means more than hospitality; it means to gather in and make part of your own.

We honor a person’s God-given dignity when we look beyond their “otherness” and  we treat them as one of our own. Our culture consistently fails this test. It’s a huge part of the reason why 90-plus percent of all Down syndrome cases diagnosed in utero end in abortion. For all of our culture’s babbling about “diversity” and “authenticity,” there are limits to how “diverse” and “authentic” many people are prepared to tolerate.

Chuck understood that being pro-life, not only anti-abortion, required welcoming people like Max even when it made us uncomfortable. It required walking alongside their families in the hard task God has seen fit to assign them, instead of treating them like a neighbor with a noisome pet.

— by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary ( Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.


Dancing with Max: A Mother and Son Who Broke Free by Emily Colson

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