Emily Colson explains how her view of God has changed and how her faith has been strengthened as she's worked to raise an autistic son as a single parent. (Part 1 of 2)
Emily Colson: See, God’s goal for Max is not that he become like other young men. God’s goal for Max, is that he become more like Christ.
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John Fuller: That’s the perspective of today’s guest, Emily Colson, discovered through years of difficulty as a single mom of a son with Autism and she has more insight to share on today’s Focus on the Family. Your host is Focus president and author Jim Daly and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: Here at Focus on the Family, one of our major goals is to celebrate life and to remind folks that we are created in the image of God and today’s speaker really has a knack for encouraging us to see the image of God in children with special needs. But her passion was born out of some pretty devastating circumstances as you’re gonna hear in just a moment. Emily Colson is a popular speaker and author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Max. I’d encourage you to get a copy from us here at Focus on the Family.
John: That was a book that had me in tears pretty much every chapter-- she is such a gifted writer and a great speaker. Here now is Emily Colson at a Mother’s Day service at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado on today’s Focus on the Family.
Emily: Good morning! I am thrilled to be here with you today. Thank you all for coming out on this beautiful spring day. You guys have a different idea of spring. I’m from Boston, so I’m used to snow, but I’m really, really ‘over’ snow.
So thank you for coming out. I’m honored to be here. I think that Mother’s Day is a celebration of life, and I hope that this morning will be just that, for all of us. I have a beautiful son, Max. He’s 24. He has a diagnosis of Autism, and we have had a grand adventure. We have had many challenges, and we have had great joy. The author of Hebrews encourages us to run with perseverance, the race marked out for us. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.” This morning I am thrilled to be able to tell you a little bit about my journey, and my story, and how these scriptures have played out, and become so important in my life. And I hope in doing so, you will find encouragement in your own life, in your own journey, as you are called to run with perseverance.
I-- bring Max everywhere, really. He’s a great guy. He’s just this awesome young man. He is so full of joy, has this wonderful personality, and we just go everywhere. So, about a year ago, I brought Max to the movies. He loves to go to the movies. Now, before you hear this story, you have to understand that as a mom of a child, adult child, with Autism, you think through everything. So, it was a three o’clock matinee, a Disney film, two days after Christmas, right? Families. Everything would be great. We get in there, sit down, and the previews were too loud. Have you ever had that happen? I don’t know why they do that. I put my hands over my ears. My ears hurt. Well, with Autism, so often the sensory system is very vulnerable, and sights and sounds and smells can just overwhelm an individual with Autism, which is exactly what happened to Max. It was too loud. He put his hands over his ears, and he cried, “I wanna go home.”
Our feature film started, and he cried out again. It just startled him. Put his hands over his ears. “I wanna go home.” Twenty seconds into our feature film, the couple beside my step-mom, who was with us, leaned forward. The woman leaned forward, and she said, “Are you gonna make him be quiet?” My step-mom kinda took a breath, and she said, “He has Autism,” and she was about to ask for a moment’s grace, when the woman said, “I know he has Autism. But why should the rest of us have to suffer?” With that, her husband leaned forward, threatened to call the manager. I thought, you know, “I don’t wanna be here.” I looked around the theater a little bit thinking, “should we just move our seats? It’s just, do we need to get away from these people?” But when I got Max up, it was then that I heard the applause around us, for our leaving. We began to walk down the stairs. People yelled things out. One man yelled, “And don’t come back.” We got to the front of the theater, and a man all the way in the back yelled the cruelest thing possible about my son’s disability. And as if that were not enough, just as we’re stepping out the door, he yelled sarcastically, “Merry Christmas.”
What do we do, when life doesn’t go as planned. How do we run with perseverance? Mother’s Day is kind of extra special for me, because it was Mother’s Day 25 years ago today, that I found out I was expecting Max. I think it was sort of a hug from Max saying, “I gotcha. I gotcha. You do not know how big, and amazing, and complicated this is gonna be, but I got you.” Well back then, my life looked really nice. It looked really, kinda perfect. I was married, had a beautiful home, had a great career, and Max on the way. You know, does it get any better than that? Well, very quickly after Max was born, we realized that things were going pretty differently than we had planned. He wasn’t hitting any of those milestones. You sort of follow this book, and you try to check off. He’s doing this at this age, and this at this age, right? Well, we didn’t have a manual. There was no book for what was going on. By the time Max was 18 months old, he finally took his first steps. Oh, this was a huge victory! He was gonna walk! And three days later, because of the stress and strain on my marriage, my husband walked. I went through a painful divorce. Trust me when I tell you this, there is no other kind. And on the heels of divorce, Max was diagnosed with Autism.
That wasn’t the toughest time. The toughest time came when Max was nine. The Autism was so severe, that we could not even really leave our home. We stopped going to church. We couldn’t go to the grocery store. Max couldn’t make it through a day at school. I would come downstairs at the end of the night, putting Max into bed, hoping he would sleep for an hour, maybe two hours. That was it, for the night. Autism can do that. I would put him into bed, and sit in that rocking chair, and I was too tired to go to bed. So I just stared at the wall, this one yellow wall in my living room. I wanted white noise. I wanted to stop feeling. I just wanted to go numb.
I did that for a lot of nights. I’m not even sure how long. It was months. And then I began to think about a scripture. John 10:10. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Abundant life. We didn’t have abundant life. We had the opposite of abundant life. I was a Christian, sitting in that rocking chair. I was a Christian. Kind of a new Christian. I trusted God, but I couldn’t even imagine how God was going to get us out of this. I kept thinking, “So, is the deal that He will simply sustain us in this painful place? Is that the deal? Or is it possible that there’s something more. And what is this abundant life that Jesus promises?”
So I made a decision that night, sitting in that rocking chair. And the next morning, I got Max up, got him dressed. I thought, “We are gonna trust God, and we are gonna find out.” So we went out. And it was disastrous.
The next day I did the same thing. Got Max, got him dressed, went out. Disaster, over and over. It was a mess. But I began to see something amazing happen. People began to step out of their comfort zones, and into our bumpy, messy lives. They did things that were [00:09:00] kind, kind beyond what I think even they knew they were capable of doing. They joined us. They let me know, “you’re not alone in this.” “I’m with you in this patch in the grocery.” “I’m with you over here.” I began to see God shine through my son’s life, not despite the Autism, but because of the Autism.
I wanna tell you how far we have come. Max was nine when I made that decision, that we refused to live as hostages any longer. He was nine. He is now 24, so that will tell you how long we have been doing this, every day, refusing to back down. Here’s how far we have come. I brought Max into a Trader Joe’s a couple years ago. I know you guys have Trader Joe’s. It’s a really fund store, right? Kinda little. Well, Max loves Trader Joe’s. He loves going everywhere. He got into that Trader Joe’s. He was so excited. You know, Max is just great. He’s like this amazing tour guide of life. Because we walk around, all worried about, “Oh, I’ve got my, I’ve got my mortgage payment. I’ve gotta be at this meeting. I gotta, you know, I gotta do this. I gotta do that. Here’s my to-do list.” Max comes in. He’s like, “Yes! We’re at Trader Joe’s!” He got so excited, right? We need that. We need that. Well, he got so excited that he made a beeline over to the freezer section. So you have to know this about Max. He loves appliances. So he loves microwaves, and vacuum cleaners, and all forms of refrigeration.
He made a beeline over to those freezers. They were Hussmann. If anybody wants to talk refrigerators later, I know a lot about refrigerators. They were Hussmann brand refrigerators. He got so excited that he’s dancing in the middle of the aisle. He started reaching into the freezer, grabbing pizzas, throwing them up over his head, and yelling, “Pizza! Get your pizza here.”
Within 45 minutes, that freezer was empty. Every single person took a pizza. Aww. But they didn’t want the pizza. What they wanted was a part of that kind of joy.
John: You’re listening to Emily Colson on Focus on the Family and you’ll hear how she and her father, Chuck Colson, handled Max’s request to be baptized at their church; that’s coming up. Get Emily’s excellent book, Dancing with Max. We’re gonna pair that with a CD of this complete message when you make a generous financial donation of any amount by calling 800-A-FAMILY. 800-232-6459. Or go online and donate at focusonthefamily.com/radio. Let’s return now to Emily Colson.
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Emily: When Max was diagnosed, I called my family, and then I called a dear friend of mine. Peppermint Patty we called her. Peppermint Patty was a very wise woman. She had worked with adults with Autism, for much of her life. Christian. And she said, “Emily, God works through these children. Max is a gift. These children are a gift.” I thought I understood. I said, “Oh, I love Max. I love him so much. Of course he’s a gift.” And she said, “No.” She said, “This might take you a while to understand.” Well, Max is 24, and I haven’t seen all the gifts yet. But I can tell you this, that I have watched Max teach us, teach others, about love and compassion, and kindness, and gentleness, and patience, and joy, and perseverance.
I watched Max teach my own dad about selfless love. I know many of you know of my dad, or knew my dad, Chuck Colson. Maybe you read one of his books, or ... I think he had 30 books that he wrote in his lifetime. He founded Prison Fellowship Ministries 40 years ago, the Colson Center for Worldview. He was a brilliant man, but when God got ahold of his heart, and he said, “Yes,” to God, his intellect and his changed heart made him a great man.
But it’s Mother’s Day, so before I tell you about Max and my dad, I wanna tell you about my mom, because my mom is an extraordinary individual. She prioritized joy. She still does. When we were growing up, she would let us take all of the furniture in the house, except for the living room couch, and the dining room table. We were allowed to take all of the furniture out of the house, and bring it out into the front yard, and build things. In the winter ... Isn’t that awesome? In the winter, we pushed aside the living room furniture. We clearly never had a living room. Pushed aside the living room furniture, and we would bring in a full sized trampoline, so that my two older brothers and I could jump, and just have fun in the house. She let my brother, when he wanted a room, his own room, she let him figure out how to do it. He had to get all the teaching and the research. She let him build an addition on our home. He was 13. Still there. Beautiful town. Beautiful home. There’s that addition.
Max happens to love everything about the Apollo 11 moon launch. It’s just the way it is with Autism. They get really, really interested, and then all of a sudden, I think it’s cool too. So every single morning, we watch the Apollo 11 launch, and the moon walk. Every morning. So, as a family, we thought, “well, we’ve gotta do something about this, right? We gotta kind of build on this.” So, as a family, we all got together. My brother is very handy at building things, and we all got together. Max helped. And we built an Apollo 11 capsule. It’s the size of a car. You can fit a couple people in it. It’s so cool. It’s got a little dashboard where you can set the iPad, and then you can play the whole film of the Apollo 11 launch. Really cool. I wish you could see it.
We didn’t know where to put it, because this thing is really big, right? So my mom has just moved into this over 55 community, and had an extra space in her garage. So she said, “Well, this is perfect. I’ll just park the spaceship in my garage.” Right? She is so kind. She is so generous. And genuine. And every time she meets a friend of Max’s, she’ll say, “You should come over and come see my spaceship.” And I’ll say, “Mom. When you’re 83, just because you have a spaceship, doesn’t mean you should tell people you have a spaceship.”
Let me tell you the best gift my mom gave to us. My parents divorced when I was five years old, long before my dad became a Christian. I know what comes with that. I know the pain that comes with divorce. My mom never said an unkind word about my dad. As a matter of fact, she only said kind things about my dad. She told us he was a wonderful man. She told us he was a good man. She told us how much he loved us. Let me tell you what that did for us. Because of my mom’s grace and selflessness, she opened the door for us to have a relationship with my dad. And because of that, my dad became my best friend. I’m so grateful to my mom.
When Max came into the world, my dad ... Now some of you know, he was like super Type A personality, right? Very hard, driven. I mean, you just kinda got caught in the back draft of my dad, and whoosh, you went. Right? It was awesome. But all of a sudden, Type A Grandfather meets Type A Autism Grandson, and it was a really complicated mix. It didn’t go well those first few years. My dad couldn’t quite figure out what to do. And then all of a sudden, my dad began to see the beauty in who Max was, exactly as he was. He began to realize, when Max was six. “Emily, I have been speaking about the sanctity of life for all these years, and I never put it together, that here is my beautiful grandson. Here’s the one I’ve been speaking about. Here’s my example right here in front of me.” Changed my dad completely.
A lot of us have those ‘aha’ moments, but do we really act on them? Totally changed my dad. My dad and Max became best friends. They were the most unlikely pair, and the most perfect pair, because each one had a gift the other needed. We were there in Florida visiting, as we did quite a bit, and we were at my dad’s church, out in the lobby. We couldn’t go to our church at the time. It just wasn’t working. Couldn’t find our place yet. But we’re out in the lobby, watching a television monitor, and Max sees a woman being baptized, and asked me what it was. And I said, “Well, it means she loves Jesus.” A moment later, I hear my 13-year old son, in that sweet voice, I hear him say, “I wanna get baptized.”
Well just then, my dad came out to check on us, and oh, I would love to tell you that when I told you, we both just pranced around, and it was like a Hallmark card, and we just dashed off and baptized Max. But we didn’t. We really struggled. I mean, Max has severe communication problems. He has such a hard time sort of figuring out how the world works, and how do you fit in it. He just doesn’t fit in it. So we struggled. “Well, what if he doesn’t understand it?”, so we started asking Max questions, right, a whole list of questions. We’ll ask this, this, this, this. He knew the answer to everything, because he’s a fact factory. But we still struggled. We thought, well what do we do? What if we baptize him, and he doesn’t understand? Is that worse than not baptizing him, when he does understand? We got so caught up for three days, we struggled.
And then I thought of something that the pastor of my church said to me. We had stopped going to church. Max was seven years old. Didn’t have a lot of language. He could speak, but it, it was pretty tough for him to communicate. I went up to the pastor. I was there by myself, without Max. And I told him that I was heartbroken, that Max wasn’t in church, that we couldn’t figure out how to do it. I said, “It breaks my heart, because Max loves to memorize Scripture, and he loves to watch his Christian videos.” The pastor of my church looked at me and he said, “Emily. The Holy Spirit speaks Max’s language.” I thought of that, and at the same time my dad and I realized, “We are making this way too hard.” So I drew out pictures for Max. That’s just sort of one of the ways we communicate. Drew out pictures, and a little sequence of events, of “here’s what will happen, and here’s what a baptism means, and here’s what you’ll do,” right? And in part, I just didn’t want him to cannon ball into his baptism.
But he knew it was different. He walked in so slowly and pensively, this little smile on his face, and he stood in front of my dad, and I watched as my dad, who was such a strong influence in my own journey of faith. I watched him baptize my son. Of all the things the world says my son cannot do, he can give his life to Christ. See, God’s goal for Max is not that he become like other young men. God’s goal for Max, is that he become more like Christ. Don’t you think that’s amazing? God has the same goal, for this young man with Autism, who struggles so greatly, that He has for you and me.
John: Emily Colson on today’s Focus on the Family and you’re going to hear the conclusion of this great presentation next time. Jim, what a picture she’s painted there of her dad, Chuck Colson, when he realized that her son Max was a living example of the sanctity of human life that he and so many of us have championed over the years.
Jim: Yeah, John, and sadly, of course, Chuck passed away in April 2012 at the age of 80 and I gotta tell ya, I miss that man! He was a wonderful mentor to me, I can’t imagine the father he was to Emily and the grandfather he was to Max. We interviewed Chuck and Emily together in 2010 and he made a very important point that I want to reiterate. He said that much of our culture has accepted an idea popularized by Charles Darwin that a person’s worth is defined by their usefulness, their contribution to society. Chuck said that people with special needs have value and importance regardless of their usefulness and they can teach us how to love more fully, how to depend on God to strengthen us during times of difficulty and that’s a powerful lesson we can learn from what the Colson family has experienced.
John: Yeah and Chuck co-authored the book with Emily called Dancing with Max. You referred to it earlier, Jim. We’d like to recommend getting their perspectives on life with a special needs child. It’s a great resource and we have it here at Focus on the Family.
Jim: We sure do, John and I’d like to offer it to you paired with the CD of Emily’s entire message for a gift of any amount. As you support the work that we do here at Focus to remind our culture of the value of every human life, regardless of their circumstances or their utility.
John: Yeah and that’s a core value here, something I really appreciate about Focus on the Family. And you can add your voice as a supporter of life by attending our Evangelicals for Life event in Washington, D.C. That’s coming in January or you can watch it online; it’s a simulcast. Look for a link for Evangelicals for Life at focusonthefamily.com/radio or ask about it when you call 800-A-FAMILY.
When you get in touch, please remember to donate and request the book and the CD bundle featuring Emily Colson. And if you enjoyed today’s program, please encourage a friend to tune in next time when Emily explains what she’s learned through her son’s autism.
Emily Colson: We are valued and loved and precious because we belong to Him. We bear the mark of our Creator.
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This bundle contains Emily Colson's book Dancing With Max, as well as a CD copy of the Focus on the Family Broadcast "Seeing God Through My Son's Autism," featuring Colson.Buy Now
This resource is a compassionate guide for family members impacted a disability in the family, offering biblical truth, practical ideas, and hope.Buy Now
Chuck Colson’s daughter refuses to let autism hold her family hostage.Read more
Emily Colson talks about the trials and triumphs she's experienced in raising her autistic son, Max. Her father, author Chuck Colson (now deceased), joins the conversation to discuss the lessons they've learned from Max which underscore the sanctity of all human life. (Part 1 of 2)Listen
Emily Colson talks about the trials and triumphs she's experienced in raising her autistic son, Max. Her father, author Chuck Colson, joins the conversation to discuss the lessons they've learned from Max which underscore the sanctity of all human life. (Part 2 of 2)Listen