No new parent knows what they are doing, but in Shannon Evans’ case, she and her husband felt especially in the dark as they struggled to cope with their young son’s challenging behaviors. In this article, she shares her experience of navigating life with an autistic child through seasons of both darkness and light, despair and hope, with the overarching knowledge that God is with her in all of it, showcasing His faithfulness in every season—sunshine and storm.
In late 2019, when our eldest son was 3 years old, my husband and I arrived at the end of our parenting selves.
Our son’s struggles with life were baffling and exhausting. Constant outbursts. Anxiety around new things and new people. Food aversions. Everything was a fight. His slight speech delay left us all frustrated. He needed our patience, and we had none left. He needed our reassurance, and we were drowning in uncertainty. His needs demanded our care and our energy. But we were also caring for his newborn brother, muddling through life in a sleep-deprived fog.
Different opinions flew in thick and fast from well-meaning loved ones. We needed to be more firm (“He’ll eat if he’s hungry,” or, “Maybe he needs a time-out”). We needed to be more lenient (“Make him a different dinner,” or, “This is just what 3-year-olds do”).
I vacillated between the two, but I’d heard the term “threenager” too and figured we just needed to weather this storm. Every parent limps through this stage, right?
But no, that day nearing the end of 2019, we’d reached a level of despair I’d never known. This could not be him ‘just being 3′. He was massively struggling, and we weren’t coping. And so, as winter’s dark came early, my husband and I lay in bed at 4 p.m. while my in-laws took the kids on a walk. We were too tired to sleep, too heartsick to talk.
We simply lay there and cried.
NAVIGATING THE DARK
Those days I took him to a weekly playgroup, and he would get upset as soon as we entered the noisy room. He’d run into the corner. During the session he would hit other kids. While other children danced during song time, my son huddled near me. While other moms drank coffee and talked while their kids just…played, I was a helicopter, hovering to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone.
Once I turned away for a second, and he rugby-tackled an angelic 9-month-old girl. The mom comforted the baby, but I knew she was waiting for me to correct him.
Those situations wore away at me. I was embarrassed, confused, and frustrated. I still remember that pit in my stomach; how I’d swipe away angry tears. When I couldn’t take his behavior anymore, I’d scoop him up and walk out of the playgroup—my tea and cake untouched, my need for friendship and adult conversation yet again unmet.
He was all we knew, our first introduction to parenting. No new parent truly knows what they’re doing, but we felt especially in the dark. His outbursts and struggles often left us paralyzed, unsure how to respond.
What Was Going On?
Was it sin needing correction, immaturity needing instruction, or (what we’d later discover was a thing) a sensory issue? Was this a tantrum or was he emotionally overwhelmed? It was often a mix. Did he need discipline? A hug? A quiet room? All three?
He continued to hit other kids. We know now it was his way of coping with anxiety, but one particular hitting incident (and our handling of it) cost me a 13-year friendship, which I still hope can one day be restored.
Despite having a strong support group, I found myself slipping further into isolation. On especially vulnerable days I would avoid meeting with other moms, unable to face another morning of mumbled apologies while pulling my son away from other children; unable to face another morning of administering half-hearted correction to a child who was not, it seemed, hearing one word.
He was not changing. Nothing was changing, except those ideals and hopes I once had for motherhood.
AN UNREALISTIC IDEAL
He needed more exposure, I convinced myself, so I planned my days around him. I planned my life around him, taking him to places I assumed he’d enjoy. He would often resist, unwilling to try much of anything. I look back on those moments now and feel compassion for both of us. Then, I tamped down resentment. I didn’t want to be in a large room full of inflatable bounce houses, either. I wanted a book and a cup of tea and silence. We were there for his sake, and he was crying.
Where was his anxiety coming from? I thought anxiety bloomed in homes fraught with conflict, even violence or abuse. Our home was generally happy and safe. His temperament tore my assumptions to pieces.
I can see now how unhelpful this mindset was, but back then I was doing the ‘mom thing’, the things I thought good moms do. ‘Good moms’ take their kids to baby groups and music class and indoor play places and ceramic painting and sensory class and story time. I was fulfilling the good mom role. Why wasn’t he holding up his end of the bargain?
He was 3 years old, I want to tell my past self.
I’d like to tell her other things, too. I’d tell her not to force her child into some idea of what she thinks childhood should look like. Because every child has different struggles and likes and dislikes and temperaments. I’d tell her to think about what she responds to best when she feels anxious—a hug? Someone’s gentle presence?—and to do that for her child.
I’d tell her that God is with her, whether things change or not.
AN UNEXPECTED LIGHT
Eventually, things did change for us.
He turned 4, and some behaviors faded. We could reason with him just that little bit more. He fought our suggestions just that little bit less. His speech improved. He tried foods he used to refuse. He ventured back on swings for the first time since babyhood.
Small steps, but still, it felt like we’d come out of a tunnel.
He’s 5 now as I write this. For his fifth birthday, we wanted to do something special, Covid restrictions having thwarted celebrations the year before. But the memory of him crying during “Happy Birthday” every year of his life thus far made us hesitate. We invited a few people, and then a few more, thinking only half would come.
All 40 people showed up. Although it was a spread-out, casual, come-and-go thing at the beach, our son had 40 people singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
He didn’t cry, but the pictures make me want to: He’s beaming down at his candlelit cake, family and friends surrounding us the way they have his entire life.
A UNIQUE MERCY
Recently we got results from his developmental evaluation: He’s officially been diagnosed with Level 1 Autism. The diagnosis doesn’t change anything about who he is, but it gives us context and strategies to help him. We will probably always have our struggles, us with our impatience and fatigue, him with his outbursts of frustration. But the same truth reverberates through me like it has since the day I saw two pink lines on that pregnancy test—the truth that’s been easy to see some days, and harder on others:
I love this little boy.
I love this little boy.
His gap-toothed grin and his wayward hair and the way he says, “I still love you” after I’ve been irritable. I love when he gives me a sticker for being a good driver. I love how he shout-sings his favorite songs, proof that he’s happy and comfortable with his audience. He’s so smart; his memory is incredible. And despite the cloud-cover his struggles can bring, to our family he is sunshine.
I want to celebrate that; to celebrate the essence of who God has purposed him to be, despite who I thought he should be. God didn’t make a mistake when He formed this child. And He knew what He was doing when He placed this child in my womb of all wombs. He knew my husband and I weren’t up to the task—and what mercy we’ve been given, to be shown how much we need Him, particularly in parenting this little boy. What mercy is ours, too, in His ever-present help.
AN UNMATCHED LOVE
And that’s just it: He is with me in it. We’re still early in our journey, and although we may not be on the widest, smoothest road, I can travel every mile of it knowing God is right there too, showcasing His faithfulness in every struggle.
He was with me when I cried in bed at 4 p.m. that afternoon, winter’s early twilight mirroring my heart. And He was with me when I laughed on a beach at 4 p.m. on a different afternoon, watching the smoke curl away from blown-out candles, sure that spring will keep on coming.
I wonder if you know that, too.
Whatever challenges your child is facing, God is with you in the meltdowns and in the food battles.
God is With You
He’s with you at that playgroup where everyone else’s child just plays. Where the other moms get to chat but you have to hover.
He’s with you in those conversations with extended family. Whose own ideas and hopes and dreams for that child may lead them to misunderstand or root themselves in denial.
He’s with you in your friendships. And He sees the jealousy that burns as you watch your friends’ children do neurotypical things.
I wonder if you know He’s with you during the appointments, as you try to navigate the jargon and hear what the professionals are saying while you calm your child. He’s with you after the appointment, too—in the car when the implications hit, and the tears come, and you’re too overwhelmed to drive home.
Sometimes the light will break through; other times the storm will come—perhaps you will even experience both within the same day. But whatever the weather or season you’re in with your child, I pray you can hold on to God’s presence.
The One who created your child with laser-like precision and atom-level detail is the same One who chose you as that child’s parent, and He will sustain you through every moment going forward, dark or bright.
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Thank you for this today, Shannon. I know about the outbursts and planning my life around a child. I also know about comments from well-meaning people who can’t begin to understand the drain of 24/7 compassion. I’m 11 years further down the road than you and we’re just now getting the answers that might have helped us long ago. We didn’t know, but God did, and just as you said, God was always there. Continue relying on His Presence and remain steady in His Hope. It does get easier, or at the least, smoother ❤ Take care of yourself.
Thanks for this, Michelle. It’s encouraging to hear from those who are further along this road. Blessings to you and your family!
Please, please get the word out. Every state in the US, I believe has an early intervention program for children ages birth to 3. A doctor should have referred you. You would have had professionals to help at an earlier age and hopefully a caring group of people to stand beside you and with you