Advocating for a Daughter Stuck in the 'Shadow of Autism'
Virginia Breen's daughter, Elizabeth, seemed to be thriving like any other infant: walking and smiling, her eyes bright and cheery. Then within one week, Elizabeth mysteriously stopped speaking, and shortly thereafter was diagnosed with autism. But for the past seven years, the 14-year-old has been "talking" through writing, mostly through poetry. Her writing is featured in I Am in Here (Baker), which is the story of Breen, a Christian, relentlessly advocating for her child, discovering her child's compassion for others, and researching ways to help Elizabeth overcome "the shadow of autism."
Breen, who recently spoke about Elizabeth's autism and poetry at TEDMED in April, talked to me about common myths about autism and what she has learned about God through Elizabeth's vibrant faith.
Through the years in which Elizabeth couldn't speak or use a letterboard, how did you know that she wanted to communicate?
Despite the turmoil of autism, there were times when Elizabeth would look into my eyes and blink slowly and deliberately, like a stroke victim to show me that although she could not speak, she understood what I was saying to her. This didn't happen often, but it drove me to find a way for her to break free from her "silent cage." Finally, when Elizabeth was 6, we found Soma Mukhopadhyay in Austin, Texas. She developed the Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) and taught her own nonverbal son to communicate with it. Soma has freed Elizabeth and more than 1,000 children and adults with RPM.
What have you learned about faith from Elizabeth?
Elizabeth has taught me … about keeping faith alive in the midst of life's challenges and focusing on what is important. Despite not being able to speak or control her body, she is joyful and hopeful. When she was 12, she wrote:
The Things I Know For Sure
There is a God
I am loved
The sun will shine
I will survive autism
You write that you "struggle every day not to be sucked down [autism's] hole." Elizabeth writes, "I have autism. I am different. I am how God made me." Is autism how God made Elizabeth, or something from which she needs healing or something else altogether?
I believe God made each of us in his image. Our bodies and souls are perfect in his sight. But our earthly existence can be far from perfect. Elizabeth has a medical condition that came from living in a polluted world, not from God. We have sought medical care for her as well as healing prayer. The hope for Elizabeth is that her body will be healed by God or medical science, or a combination of the two, aided by the force of her strong will.
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