Moving From Strength to Strength as a Special-Needs Parent

My husband and I are on Isla Mujeres, a lovely jewel of an island off the coast of Mexico. It’s a long-awaited vacation—a time to rest and rejuvenate. We vacationed here, just the two of us, at the very beginning of our walk with our youngest son’s autism. Little did we know, 31 years ago, what lay ahead for each one of us, for our marriage, and for our family. 


Before walking down to the beach for our morning quiet time, I pick up my phone, planning to find a scripture for meditation. Instead, I’m confronted with an email notification from our son Joel’s case manager. 

“Incident Report.”

Heart pounding, I take a deep breath and set down the phone. I am NOT going to let this ruin my vacation. I am NOT going to read this right now. Picking up the phone again I hit the Safari button and look at this week’s lectionary for a scripture to center our quiet time. 

I settle on Psalm 84.

Wally and I walk down to the beach together and get settled on lounge chairs under a stand of  coconut palms. I’ve decided not to say anything to him about the email. We’re here to rest and rejuvenate! The surf breaks with a roar over coral outcroppings. A squadron of frigate birds soars through a bluer-than-blue sky, and a lone pelican dive bombs the water just in front of us. Choosing to meditate with eyes wide open, I soak in the beauty after we read the psalm aloud. The words that resonate with me are these:

Blessed are those who make You their strength,
    for they treasure every step of the journey [to Zion].
 On their way through the valley of Baca,
    they stop and dig wells to collect the refreshing spring water,
    and the early rains fill the pools.
 They journey from place to place, gaining strength along the way;
    until they meet God in Zion. Psalm 84:5-7 (The Voice)

Questions about the incident report (What incident?! What happened this time?!?) pound like the surf in my mind, drowning out the words of the psalm. Memories of years and years of behavioral incidents rise to the surface. 

I gently bring my mind back to the psalm until I find a few words that sparkle with energy. 

They stop and dig wells to collect the refreshing spring water.

I repeat these words in my mind, a mantra of sorts, until the circling vultures of memory settle; until I can breathe deeply and freely; until my heart settles to a slow, steady beat as rhythmic as the surf.

This is what Wally and I have done along the journey. We’ve dug wells to collect living waters. The cool, refreshing water of the Spirit we’ve collected has enabled us to continue the often-difficult-yet-joyous journey of parenting a son with autism.

I let go of the painful images to list the pools we’ve dug. I write them down in my journal as a reminder:

  • Annual weekends away from home, in beautiful natural settings, where we prayed, dreamed, and envisioned the future—for our family, for our marriage, and for Joel. State parks near our home. Red River Gorge and the Smoky Mountains. Amish country. We journaled what we heard from the Lord on those trips, and God led us to Cloudland, our little contemplative retreat center where we welcome missionaries, college students and burned-out pastors with the living water we’ve collected. He led Joel to his own home in this small college town, where he’s a vital part of the community.

  • Regular retreats, with my friend Patty, at The Monastery of St.Clare. Two or three days of holy naps, time to write, and time to simply sit in the Lord’s presence while Wally held down the fort with three boys at home. 

  • An annual trip to The Writing Academy, also with my friend Patty, where I learned that God had given me a gift; where I honed that gift so that I could let the world know that there are alleluias in living with autism (Autism & Alleluias)

  • Weekly prayer meetings with a small group of women, using the spiritual discipline of Lectio Divina to guide our times together. This was so life-giving that when Wally and I started our retreat center, we started a new lectio group, this one for men and women. The ways the Lord speaks to us through the Word, personally as well as collectively, is always refreshing, and sometimes breath-taking!

  • Simple daily quiet times over a cup of steaming tea. When the kids were still at home, I sat down with the Lord after they got on the bus. Today, as an empty-nester, God is waiting for me with a cup of tea whatever time I choose to get up! A daily in-filling of living water!

  • Times spent in nature—walking in the woods or floating on our little pontoon boat on the lake down the road always fills me up when I’m thirsty for God. The artistry of our Creator reminds me daily of His powerful presence and leads me to praise.

  • Finding a spiritual director, and meeting with her once a month. This has been one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. Walking with someone who has come to know me intimately, and with whom I’m free to share my questions, doubts, struggles, and joys in this walk with disability and with God, has filled my cup to overflowing.  The overflow led me to becoming a spiritual director myself.

I let memories of each of these well-digging expeditions wash over me, and the cool, refreshing waters of the Holy Spirit fill me up, cascading over. In 46 years of marriage, and 33 years of raising a son with autism, we have journeyed from place to place. Some of the journey has been through deserts, some through rocky terrain, some through raging waters, some through places of incredible beauty. It has been through seeking God every step of the way, and in intentionally taking time to dig wells to collect the life-giving waters of His presence, that we have moved from strength to strength.

Psalm 84 ends with these words:

Just one day in the courts of Your temple is greater
    than a thousand anywhere else.
I would rather serve as a porter at my God’s doorstep
    than live in luxury in the house of the wicked.
For the Eternal God is a sun and a shield.
    The Eternal grants favor and glory;
He doesn’t deny any good thing
    to those who live with integrity.
O Eternal One, Commander of heaven’s armies,
    how fortunate are those who trust You. (Psalm 84:10-12, The Voice)

Questions to Ponder: Where are the places you stop to collect the refreshing spring waters of the Lord’s presence? How have those pools revived you on your journey? 

Kathleen Bolduc is the mother of three sons, one daughter of heart, one beautiful grandson, and is has authored several books on the journey with autism, including The Spiritual Art of Raising Children with Disabilities. She and her husband run a contemplative retreat center, Cloudland, in southwest Ohio. Her website can be found at