Talking with the Autism Pastor – Glass Half Full with Leslie Krongold, Ed.D.
One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Samson. Samson’s story is one of those stories that has become a cultural point of reference. Samson is a symbol of strength.
If you have ever read the story of Samson then you probably know two key facts about his life. The first was that Samson didn’t cut his hair. The second is that he was extremely strong.
I’ve always admired his story. Samson wasn’t a perfect man. In fact, he was far from it, but his imperfections are not what he is most known for, Samson is most remembered for how strong he was.
When I was young I was so enamored with his strength that I never realized that Samson’s strength often came as a surprise to those around him.
“The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “Entice Samson to tell you what makes him so strong and how he can be overpowered and tied up securely. Then each of us will give you 1,100 pieces of silver.”” Judges 16:5 NLT
One day it dawned on me, the reason that people were willing to pay good money to discover the source of Samson’s strength is because he didn’t look all that strong.
Other than his long hair, there was nothing that stood out about Samson that would suggest that he was as strong as he was. He wasn’t physically imposing. He didn’t have massive biceps and triceps. His strength was a total shock to those around him because there was no apparent source of his strength.
Samson’s strength was the result of a promise that his mother made to God before he was born. Samson knew that the source of his strength wasn’t found in his biology, or his body, his strength was born his background.
Like Samson, Paul reveals that his life is far from perfect, and that he dealt daily with what he called a “thorn.” While this is true, he also points to the reality that real strength is found in what takes place behind the scenes. The source of his strength was found in the secret, and unseen places of his life. In his story of strength was the background of God’s grace.
The strength that I have that has allowed me to experience the success that I have experienced, is like Samson and Paul, the direct result of what happens in the background of my life.
Here are at least three things at work in the background of my life that help me to be strong in ways that often surprise everyone, including me.
I am strong because I have great partnerships.
I am often asked how I am able to successful navigate life as a pastor and leader in my community. The answer is simple; I’ve learned that living on the autism spectrum requires me to have support. I have a race to run, but I can’t run my race without support. I can’t be strong without partnerships.
I have a wonderful faith community and a great staff. Together we have successfully created an environment where people can be educated on the type of support I need to be at my strongest. I am surrounded by love and support constantly and the tasks that I struggle with are carried by members of our community who understand how to support me. My staff excels at accentuating my strengths which make me the best pastor and leader that I can be for the people I serve. I am strong because they partner with me.
My closest partner in life is my wife, Isabella. I have known my wife since we were both 19 years old. We have been married for 16 years. Together we have three beautiful boys.
My family is an amazing source of inspiration and strength for me. Long days and longer nights, sensory overload, social anxiety, communication challenges all seem to be absorbed by their love and support for me. Since being diagnosed with ASD, we have learned how to make each other better.
My wife is committed to helping me navigate social situations by making me feel safe, feeding me cues and clues and recognizing when I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed and stepping in to give me some relief. My children love their dad and they learn from my strengths how to become better people themselves. They know that dad is different, but that sometimes in order to make a difference in the world you have to be willing to be different. They see my routines, my resilience, and my reflection time as guides to becoming better thinkers and more compassionate in accepting others who may be different. My faith is forged in my partnership with my family. I am strong because of their support.
I am strong because I practice, prepare, and most of all I pray.
As a result of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as an adult, I learned to understand the world around me much better. I now understand that I live in a world that my brain isn’t built for. I now understand how my sensory processing influences my anxiety. I understand that the lighting will often be so bright or so dim that it distorts my depth perception and facial recognition. I understand that my brain identifies and processes multiple sounds simultaneously, often leaving me with an overwhelming sense of confusion. I understand that my social anxiety can at times cause me to go an entire day without verbally communicating to anyone.
My life is unfiltered. My life is lived in high definition. I see, hear, feel, and many times smell the world in ways that most people don’t and as a result it requires me to pour an incredible amount of energy into surviving each day. I often look tired because I am exhausted. Life often challenges me in ways that the average person could never imagine.
You won’t always see me at the football game, or the concert that everyone is going to. You often won’t see me hanging out at the mall or at an amusement park. You won’t always see me at the Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Independence Day cook outs and fireworks shows, but when I am able to attend it is because I am prepared.
Preparation means practice, so I practice by first doing my best to first put things into perspective. I have real challenges and on occasion my challenges pose problems, but I practice pushing my perspective in a positive direction. I am autistic and I am strong.
When I need to venture out into the world, taking on the sights, sounds smells, and social interaction I practice the tasks that I need to perform each day. I practice my words daily, constantly expanding my vocabulary by learning new definitions, new synonyms, and antonyms so that I am able to communicate with people despite my social anxiety. I appear polished because I practice.
I learn as much about environments and events that I attend prior to attending. I do my homework and research everything. I know who is going to be there, what I am expected to say and do, and how long I will be present. I learn what sights, sounds, and smells may be present and I practice interacting in a similar scenario. I write scripts of words and conversations in my mind, preparing me with a variety ways to connect with people.
It’s a lot of work I know, but it’s worth it. When I practice I have confidence and I feel safe and secure. When I prepare I have less anxiety and I feel stable because I have a strategy for success. When I am prepared and I am ready to engage, I feel encouraged. I feel strong. When you see me out actively engaging the world, you don’t see someone who is problem free, you see someone who has practiced, prayed, and prepared to do the best I can to be the best I can.
Most importantly I pray. A lot. Like Samson I realize that he source of my strength is based on a power that precedes me. I am continually amazed at the grace of God working in my life. In many ways I just stumbled into this place in my life. I’m really not as smart, talented, or bold as some think I am. What the world often experiences when they see me is the product of lots and lots of prayer.
Finally, I am strong because I believe in my God given potential.
One of my favorite quotes is by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.– Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Since I’ve become public about my autism diagnosis in 2015, I have developed a passion for my work as an autism advocate and a pastor, but at the heart of it all, I am nothing more than a story teller and I’ve dedicated the last two years of my life to telling a story that I’ve never told.
While I don’t consider myself a hero, I do believe that Emerson has a great point.
What makes us all heroes is our willingness to spend a small amount of time going beyond our normal limits and being brave for just 300 seconds more.
I am not a hero, but I do work hard. I do work hard to overcome my fears and to step out of my comfort zone because I believe that my story has the potential to bring hope to others. I believe that’s how God works.
Although I wasn’t diagnosed until I was an adult, I have discovered that ASD doesn’t always have to be an obstacle. Autism does present its share of challenges however when we learn how to leverage its potential strengths it can help us reach our full potential. That is my mission. That is why I share my story. That is why I bravely step out into the world and live with courage and strength for five minutes longer than I did the day before.
Life is a precious gift. No matter how many ways that life’s circumstances attempt to restrict me from being “normal” I’ve learned that when we try to look past “labels” and resist the urge to limit ourselves and others we will learn to finally start living. We will learn to believe in our greatest potential. We will learn that we are all strong.
A portion of this post is an excerpt from an article first featured in Zoom Autism Magazine
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Black History Month initially began as “Negro History Week” in 1926. Initiated by Carter G. Woodson, a noted African American scholar, educator, and publisher, the aim was to include into the annals of American history, the significant names and notable accomplishments of its black citizens. Black history is American history, and in 1976 the week was expanded to an entire month in February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
I believe that Black History month, however, should not just be considered a momentary celebration of successful African Americans. Black History month need not be reduced to merely a month when African Americans are awarded the gift of America acknowledging them for simply surviving the brutality of slavery and segregation. Black History Month should be just one of the many weapons in the America’s arsenal to fight against the inclination to tell a story that does not include the voices of all of her citizens. Black History Month is the persistent and passionate pounding of the drum of diversity.
The strength of any community or country are the voices of those who have been marginalized. Diversity is needed because no narrative is complete when voices are missing. Black History month is an intentional pause in the proclamation of the American story; a pause that is designed to discipline our steps, direct our conversations, and demand we march to the rhythm of inclusion and not just inspirational stories.
As a pastor, author, and professional communicator, I understand all too well the need to adequately and accurately tell a story that includes those on the margins, and invites them to participate in the story in ways that validate their often forgotten voices.
As an autistic African American, I am continually developing an even deeper understanding and appreciation for the role and responsibility to discipline myself, encourage my neighbors and organize my nation to carve out the critical space for the voices of the black and disabled community.
After years of struggling with finding my way and finding my voice in a world that did not understand me or validate my voice, I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s) in December of 2014. Since that time I have become increasingly aware of the past pressure to conform to a narrative that didn’t validate my culture or my neurology. It was as though I marched to an entirely different beat. Like many in our communities, my voice was silent and being silenced, often times without me having a complete awareness that it was even happening. The beat I was made to march to was a burden and the song I was made to sing only led to shame.
Yet I believe that out of the ashes can rise something beautiful and from the bottom can be found those who will be the bearers of good news that can and will complete the story. From the burden can come an unsuspecting benefit. This is the both the burden and the beauty of Black History Month. It is the simultaneous acknowledgement of omission from the story and the aspiration to find the opportunities to share in the story.
“It is never to be forgotten that one of the ways by which men measure their own significance is to be found in the amount of power and energy other men must use in order to crush them or hold them back.The persecution becomes a vote of confidence, which becomes in turn, a source of inspiration, power, and validation.”
Simply put, the need for Black History is the very validation for its existence.
In February of 1968, just months before his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered a riveting message entitled “The Drum Major Instinct.” In that message he points to the dangers of always insisting on the need to be acknowledged, praised, or admired. In his message, Dr. King warns against the danger of what he labels “snobbish exclusivism.” This term means that without discipline and direction, it is easy to exclude others because it is human nature to succumb to the “Drum Major Instinct;” the instinct to rule.
In the closing moments of his message, Dr. King transitions from eloquently describing the dangers of an unchecked “Drum Major Instinct” to the beauty of allowing the same instinct to be inspired by a need to serve others. As he reflects on the future of his life and his legacy, he points the listeners away from self-promotion and self-preservation and instead channels the “Drum Major Instinct” as a vehicle to serve the world.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the spirit of Dr. King’s poignant words as well as the responsibility of belonging to a painful but purposeful legacy of advocates and activists in the autism and disability communities, my aim much like the aim of Black History Month is to simply serve others and serve our nation not by being a drum major, but by simply being a drum:
A drum that beats like a heart that keeps the frustrated, fragile, yet forward looking country called America moving toward the goal of instinctively and intentionally including the voices of all her citizens in the story she tells.
A drum that beats loudly and proudly, not from a surface sense of accomplishment or a need to be acknowledged, but from a place of passion for providing the rhythm and discipline to a nation that can otherwise lose its steps and miss its beat.
A drum that that does not circumvent the song, but that provides structure to the songs and the stories that are sung and told.
Drums provide direction. Drums promote unity. Drums give each instrument, each storyteller, each melody, and each lyric a place at the table and a place to tell their story so that what is heard, seen, and most importantly felt is real, authentic, and soul stirring.
Black History and disability advocacy is the drum that beats the sound of diversity and inclusion into the song that is being played and the stories that are being told so that when the march ends, our communities and our country would have proudly progressed toward a more perfect union with passion, purpose, and precision.
If we need drum majors, then we also need drums.
*This post was also shared at The Autistic Self Advocacy Network Blog
Autism Live Interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCviYqGH2_0&feature=share
Over the last two years, I have had the privilege of speaking with hundreds of people who share my story. People’s whose lives are impacted by autism in ways that the statistics and research can’t quantify or qualify.
It’s the silent and subtle ways that societal pressure eats away at the esteem of young students who fail to measure up to the social norms and unwritten rules of acceptable social behavior.
Like me, there are many who “passed” and pretended our way through life because being someone else, pretending to understand the unwritten rules, wasn’t a matter of social acceptance, it became a matter of survival.
Below is an excerpt from my new book I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor.
Fear and False Images
When I was in middle school, the fear of not being enough finally took its grip on my life. The fear of not being enough wrapped its fingers around my throat and squeezed with enough force to finally squeeze the life out of me. My life, the life that God had given me, the life that was complete with imperfections and weaknesses, began to disappear. What began to emerge was an image. I was not a ninety-foot statue, but it was a larger-than-life false representation of the real me nonetheless.
One of the first signs that I was erecting a false image was the decline of my academic interest. I had always been a great student growing up. I loved to read. I enjoyed learning. I can remember the feeling of accomplishment and joy when I was able to grasp new ideas and new concepts. One of my favorite subjects was history. I particularly enjoyed biographies and documentaries. I found something intriguing about the stories of historic people and places. Even more than fiction, the life stories of historical figures captured my imagination in ways that nothing else could. Education was my gateway into the world. Education was my strength; it was where I found value. School was the place where I could prove I was more than just an odd bird who didn’t socialize much; school made me special.
All that seemed to change in middle school. As it turned out, being smart and being a bookworm didn’t make me special, it made me stupid. I never did quite understand the irony of how being smart in middle school could make me feel so stupid and ignorant. It felt as though the more visible my academic achievements were, the more violent middle school became. Middle school was violent because any attempt to change a person without love is an act of violence.
The moment I stopped loving myself was the moment I became violent and dangerous, not to others, but to myself.
I once heard a story of a man isolated on a deserted island for years. Realizing he would be on the island for an extended period of time, he decided to make himself some shelter. The story goes on to say that after some time had lapsed, another man washed up on the shore of this remote deserted island. After spending years alone on the island, the first man was excited to see another human being. Running up to his new visitor, he said, “I am so excited to see another human being after all these years. Let me show you around the island!” The man quickly grabbed his new friend by the hand and dragged him to a location on the island where there were three huts made from sticks, trees, and mud. The second man was puzzled by the three dwellings and asked the first man, “What are the three huts for?” The first man quickly responded, “I knew I would be here a while, so I decided I needed to make myself some shelter. The first hut is my home.” “Great” the second man replied, “What is the hut in the middle?” The first man replied, “Well, I am a devout Christian, so I knew I would need a place to worship. The second hut is my church.” “Great,” the second man replied. “I am a Christian, too. May I ask what the third hut is for?” “Oh,” said the first man, “that’s the church I used to attend.”
Life for many people is similar to the story of this man. We can blame the world for our lack of peace when the reality is that we have a more difficult time getting along with ourselves than we do getting along with others. Bullying played a role in my life over those years, but if I were to be honest, the person who was most violent toward me was myself. I wasn’t able to have a healthy relationship with myself. No one person made me feel as bad and as worthless as I made myself feel. When we are unhappy with who we are and how God made us, it leads to a massive downward spiral into violence against self. While I never turned to self-harm as a means of violence against myself, I did change who I was because I was unhappy with how I was made. I was unhappy with the fact that no matter how hard I tried, I could not be as outgoing as the other kids my age. I was terribly unhappy with how socially inept I seemed to be. I was painfully unhappy about the fact that being smart was not cool and definitely not popular. The thought of being different made me feel deficient.
Now, what I am about to say next will most likely go against most of your traditional view of faith and maybe even your traditional view of sin, but before you completely abandon ship, I want you to take a close look at the perspective I am offering, and determine for yourself if it even remotely explains our human proclivity to behave badly. Are you ready? Being “lost” is not about bad behavior; being lost is the result of doing a bad job of being someone that God didn’t create you to be. You will always fail at being someone you were not meant to be. The result of the continued failure to be someone you are not is the bad behavior (sin) that is merely an effort to make ourselves less deficient, less depressed, or less different than everyone else. Sin is the result of a continued dissatisfaction with who God made us to be.
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