A Better Question: Learning to live beyond the label

Facing life with a disability can be a daunting task. When I was first diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder I was both relieved and remorseful all within the same moment.  I was diagnosed in 2014 at age 36, so I was relieved because my diagnosis helped to answer some very puzzling questions about me, my behavior, and my lack of social skills. On the other hand, I felt remorse because I had a sense of guilt over all the relationships I felt I had ruined over the years because I had unintentionally offended someone.

A diagnosis of any kind always comes with questions. What does that mean? How did I get it? Is it fatal? Is there a cure? From common colds to cancer one thing is certain, being diagnosed with anything usually comes with far more questions than answers. Being diagnosed with autism is no different; in fact, it may cause an even greater line of questioning.

Like many people, I often have questions about my own life because my diagnosis and as if my questions aren’t enough to deal with, I also deal with the questions and curiosity of others. Normally I welcome questions about autism. As an autism self-advocate I am prepared to handle serious questions about how autism impacts my life. Then there are the questions I receive as a pastor that at times take my advocacy in an entirely different direction.

“Why was I born with autism?”

Believe it or not, I get this question a lot. Whether the question is from another person diagnosed with autism, or someone wanting to know why I believe I was personally born with autism, the question is one that raises the issue of faith and at the same time it wrestles with the question about the future. Honestly, I understand the heart behind this question because it can be very difficult to live in a world that isn’t always affirming of those with disabilities.

One of my favorite Bible stories illustrates just why this issue is so complicated.  The beauty of this story is that Jesus doesn’t avoid the questions but instead he asks what I believe to be an even better question.

“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. ‘Rabbi,’ his disciples asked him, ‘why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins of his parents’ sins?’ ‘It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,’ Jesus answered.’ ‘This happened so the power of God could be seen in him’.” (John 9:1-2 NLT)

When it comes to understanding life and faith questions are necessary. Jesus shows us in this story that what’s most important is learning to ask the right questions. Like many of us the disciples wanted to know why the man was born with a disability. Their question is ultimately about why the man could not see. Jesus redirects the conversation away from defining the man by his disability and he instead redirects the conversation toward defining the man by his destiny.

Jesus has a simple response. It was no one’s fault that the man could not see, but the value of his life will be determined not by his lack of sight but by how the power of God would be seen in him. In other words, the best question is not “Why can’t this man see?” but rather “How can God be seen?”

In the face of what seems to be a life limiting disability, the best question is not “Why was I born this way?” but “Why was I born?”

The last two years of my life have been a journey toward both self-discovery and self-advocacy and I as I have slowly stepped out of the shadows I am continually gaining the confidence to add my voice to the valuable discussion about autism in communities of faith. This is why I was born. This is why we were all born. Like Paul and his mysterious “thorn” I am learning that God often uses the platform of our weaknesses, our brokenness, and our disabilities so God and his grace can be seen.

God is seen in my ability to persevere despite having social anxiety and sensory processing challenges. God is seen when I overcome obstacles, challenges, and stereotypes. God is seen when I am inspired to share my struggles in hopes that it will inspire others to never give up.

That is why I decided to step out of the shadows and share my life with the world in my first book, I Am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor. What I sincerely hope people see in my life is God’s grace transforming life’s toughest moments into life’s most teachable moments.

My life on the spectrum showcases the strength of the human spirit and the blessing found in being able to receive answers to the right questions. God’s grace generates such an incredible strength deep down on the inside of me that that it actually makes it life appear easy. My prayer, every day that I wake up, every time that I want to throw in the towel, and every time I struggle is not “Why was I born this way’, but ‘Why was I born and how can God be seen through me today?’

In 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety and sensory processing disorder, and a host of other significant issues, Dr. Hardwick was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers Syndrome). He was 36 years old when diagnosed. His articles and blogs can also be found on his website www.autismpastor.com. He provides workshops, seminars, and consults churches, faith-based organizations, and schools on creating environments for people with autism. He also provides mentoring services for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. He is currently the pastor of New Community Church located in Lagrange, GA.