When we moved to South Africa seven years ago, being an American family and transplanting ourselves into the middle of a new country, new culture, and living in a township community, we knew there would be many challenges ahead. There is so much we have learned while living in South Africa, and our lives and hearts have grown in so many ways on the journey. We never could have imagined that our greatest challenge in our lives would not come from outside the walls of our home, but within it.
We brought our daughter with us to South Africa when we moved here and have watched her grow up into an incredibly loving and wise young girl, having influences from all parts of Cape Town and American society. We decided it was time to have a second child after a couple years, and our son Keller was born in 2014. There was a loving community in the Ocean View community ready to welcome him, as well as people in our ministry and abroad in the USA. Our first year was bliss with this new little life, but after about that time we began to notice differences in Keller that were at first a small concern and grew to be a loud alarm.
Over time we recognized that Keller wasn’t developing at the rate he should be and he was wholly overwhelmed and anxious in most environments. When Keller was 21 months old he was diagnosed with mild to moderate autism and our world and dreams crashed around us. We had come to Africa to love and serve people and knew we would have many trials but never thought it would be something like special needs within our own home.
That was two years ago and having a son with special needs, living abroad from our family and friends, and learning how to love and serve our son in the midst of loving and serving others has changed our lives more than we could have dreamed. We have learned first-hand about the needs of those with disabilities and how they are most often overlooked and discriminated against; and we have felt this ourselves with immense heartache.
We have sought God over and over to help us guide our treasured son through therapies and interventions while learning that so many with disabilities around us in Africa do not have the same privileges. Our son Keller has grown and developed and is thriving in so many ways, and it has only deepened our passion to help others who don’t have the same opportunities that our family has.
What has been born out of this seemingly unthinkable misfortune has been an utter gift that has given us great joy, wisdom and connection with our own family and others we would have never known.
There have been markers along the way that have clearly shown how the world sees those with disabilities, and experiencing it first-hand will be forever cemented in our memories. When Keller was two, for instance, we were on a long-distance flight back home to Africa, when we were repeatedly scolded by a frazzled flight attendant for our child’s ‘naughty’ behavior and noise. I finally erupted into tears admitting his diagnosis and subsequently didn’t see that attendant for the rest of our journey. I am sure she was embarrassed and ashamed once she learned he had autism and hadn’t been able to control his behaviors, but it was a clear picture of how many on the outside do not understand the difficulties of having a child with special needs.
On every other flight since we have first notified flight attendants of his autism in case of an outburst, but then have been treated with absolute empathy and care. Why is it so often that we are compassionate only after we know the full story? Couldn’t we try to create a world where we first choose kindness before judgement? Personally I have come to know how desperately kind gestures are needed in a world of sometimes invisible hardships.
The past two years has been an incredible journey of watching our special needs son struggle and thrive every day of his life. He works hard, he is a fighter, and he has overcome so much. Sometimes you expect your life and sacrifice to look a certain way; you unintentionally want to put conditions on the ways you will struggle, but obviously this is never how God works. But in God’s great wisdom and love for us, He knows exactly what we can handle and what will allow us to truly know ourselves and to truly know His love. Autism and knowing first-hand what it is like to have special needs in our family has been one of the greatest gifts of our lives and one God has used for His glory over and over again.