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