The February 2024 issue of Autism Parenting Magazine is publishing my story about how a pack of gum saved my marriage. It didn’t literally, but it sure helped when my autistic sons were blowing up over nothing. As the person who was supposed to handle the situation, I couldn’t be losing my cool at the same time they were. It was wiser to blow bubbles instead of blow up (though, in retrospect, sugary gum was not the best call for my teeth).
I’m 30 years older and wiser now, and circumstances that used to daunt my wife and me are now old hat. But what I want to share here is less about my wisdom and more about where God has shown me his love by gracing us with the opportunity to raise autistic boys.
First, I’m keenly aware of what’s most important. Who knows what might have happened to my marriage if I’d been sucked into a corporate career, with the coveted VP label and a mandate to show my smiling face at all the “important” networking events? Would I have been better off with neuro-normal kids whom I never saw because the “important” clients just had to have me in the room to hold their hands?
Second, I know how to appreciate little things. Many couples can take big vacations once their kids grow up, or watch their kids take on big careers or travel the world. Our world is smaller … but no less joyful, as our kids master some skills in ways nobody else in the world could. We also have a strong sense of little solutions — not every “neurodivergent kids” problem is an existential crisis, and some issues require only as small and uncomplicated a help as a stick of sugar-free gum to ease the kids’ stress in a new environment.
My wife and I have also learned that marriage means you can’t go it alone. We appreciate each other’s strengths. We’ve both cultivated the humility to lean on each other — if I know she’s running low on gum, I’ll make sure I grab some for her next time I’m at the grocery store, and I can count on the same conscientiousness from her. Without our shared partnership, our lives would be a mess.
Third, I’m able to help people in ways that I couldn’t if we had a “normal” life. Jesus understood the isolation of the leper and the woman at the well. The Chosen portrays him allowing St. James to have a physical disability because it will make him relatable to others. And so I’ve learned from raising kids who stood out — sometimes in challenging ways — to help others on that same road. If my kids were “normal,” I could not help the young couple who feel ashamed because everyone is glaring at them in church or at the grocery store. There’s no way I could help them to know they are doing just fine, or to explain to the gawking crowd that, no, the child isn’t a brat — they are seeing what is normal for a neurodivergent child.
Fourth, I’ve learned simply to trust God more. With so much of my time and energy invested in the rewarding work of raising kids well beyond their early childhood years, I haven’t been able to rely on big money or an impressive LinkedIn profile for positive feelings. I’ve meditated on Jesus and his mother at the Crucifixion, feeling kinship with her in experiencing my children’s suffering. And my family has benefited immensely from angels in human clothing — strong, virtuous friends and family members who have helped put my suffering in perspective. Sometimes they’ve reminded my wife and me that the virtuous path in life has its crosses, and sometimes they’ve taken a piece of our suffering onto themselves, such as by running to the grocery store for us when our kids were sick.
And so, as we learned how to be better parents to autistic children and better cope ourselves, we also learned how to embrace our unique circumstances. We became stronger as a couple and in our faith. That’s the part of our story that I shared in my book and that we frequently share with younger parents of neurodivergent children. We want them to know that they are not alone — and that there is a balm on Earth and in Heaven for their struggles.
When I wrote my book, I made it clear, right on the cover, that raising children with autism has been a blessing. Despite many painful moments and frustrating periods, my wife and I remember the words of St. Paul: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. ... I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” Loving and caring for our two sons has helped my wife and me strengthen our faith and learn to see the world in new ways. With the right support system and healthy habits — and a keen sense of the transcendent good we strive for, purposefully, in our virtuous suffering — anyone in a similar situation can also experience this blessing.
Chris Peden is the father of two autistic children, founder of Peden Accounting Services, and author of The Blessings of Autism: How Raising a Child with Autism Helped Develop My Faith and Made My Life Better.