Joe’s Deep Dark Secret

At this point I wish to make a confession. Not a confession of sin, mind you, but still it is something that I feel is very important. This is something which up to this point I have only discussed with my immediate family and a few close, well-trusted friends. One of these friends has encouraged me recently to write about this on my blog. At first I was reluctant, because I did not feel comfortable with sharing it outside the circle of my closest friends. Yet I have seen a great deal of personal honesty in the blogosphere–especially in the work of Michael Spencer, my all-time blogging hero, who has written several confessional posts dealing with his personal life. I am beginning to think that perhaps what I am about to share would be appropriate here after all.

So here goes…

Autism is a disorder that affects the brain in such a way that certain areas develop well beyond what they would in a normal person, while other areas do not develop properly at all. Generally, the areas of the brain which do not develop properly are those which pertain to language and social skills.

[NOTE:  This is a misconception which I held at the time this piece was first written.  In doing further research into the nature of autism for class presentations and whatnot, all the definitions of autism that I have come across have characterized it as strictly a deficit in language/social functioning.  While many autistic people are savants whose brains have developed well beyond normal people in certain areas, this is by no means a common or universal characteristic of autism.]

Most people with autism must spend their lives in institutions, or at least have constant or near-constant attention from trained caregivers. But there are many autistic people who, with proper training and a certain amount of effort, are able to lead normal lives, or at least maintain the outward appearance thereof. These are called “fully-functioning autistics”.

I am one of those people.

My language skills did not develop on time–I did not talk in complete sentences until about 3 or 4 years of age. I attended special classes for several years during my early childhood, yet was able to enter school at a normal time. With the training that I received in those early years, plus a lot of discipline and effort on my part and the part of those closest to me, I am now able to lead something resembling a normal existence. Still, even something so routine as ordering lunch at McDonalds can be an adventure for me if things do not go exactly as I expect.

One of the biggest reasons for my reluctance to share this is that there is a stigma attached to autism. Very little is known about autism, despite the advanced state of medical knowledge and technology today. And even the best of us tend to mock or to fear what we don’t understand.

To illustrate my point, what was the first thing that popped into your mind when you saw the word autism? I would guess that it was one of two things: either an image of a young boy running around, biting people and screaming uncontrollably; or the character Rain Man, played by Dustin Hoffman in the 1989 movie, who went through almost his entire life watching old reruns of The People’s Court or sitting in restaurants and counting toothpicks, and required the constant supervision of his brother (played by Tom Cruise).

Yet despite the stigma attached to autism, there are many people out there who understand the tremendous odds which autistic people face and respect anyone who is able to overcome those odds and maintain some semblance of a normal existence. One of the reasons for my reluctance to share this has to do with these people. For it is possible that if I were to share this, it might come across that I am making this up in order to have some excuse for not dealing with those issues in my life that it is perfectly within my power (and the power of any normal, responsible person) to deal with. Oh well. I guess that’s a risk I just have to take.

I know that my condition has affected many people in my life over the years, whether they realized it or not. For most people, I would venture to guess that the effect has been little or nothing more than a slight sense of discomfort when around me, something which could probably not be traced to any specific cause. Some people have actually said this to me; I would guess that a lot more have felt it without venturing to say anything. For some people the effects have been more drastic; because of poor social skills resulting from my condition I have made blunders which have cost me the opportunity for relationships with people whom I respected and admired very much.

For those of you out there who have felt the adverse effects of my manner of relating to others, please accept my apologies.

Well, that’s my deep dark secret.

For those of you interested in further reading on autism, Temple Grandin has written a few good books. Temple Grandin is an animal behavior scientist who has designed livestock handling systems which are used in one third of all the meat-processing facilities in the United States. She is autistic.

Emergence: Labeled Autistic is all about her experiences growing up as an autistic person.

Thinking In Pictures is all about the unique way in which she and other autistic people think and relate to the world.

Animals in Translation, her most recent book, is drawn from her expertise as an animal behavior scientist, and is about the parallels between the way animals see the world and the way autistic people see the world. The idea of this book is that animal thought and behavior can help us understand autism, and the thought and behavior of autistic people can help us understand animal thought and behavior.


16 thoughts on “Joe’s Deep Dark Secret

  1. Joe, thanks for listening to your heart and writing about your autism. I’ve known you through the years at North Point, and am so thankful for the contribution you are to the body of people here. I’m so glad you didn’t let autism or its stigma make you shrink back. Way to go Joe!

  2. Joe, I am sure that this will help someone else, just know that you might never hear about how you helped someone.

    Some of the things that I admire about you:
    Your willingness the follow God’s leading in your life.
    Your courage to introduce yourself to a stranger.
    Your ability to remember peoples names.

  3. Joe,

    thank you so much for having the courage to reveal what few of us would. You are unbelievably brave and strong to carry on the life that you do with so much normalcy.

    Louie talked this past week at Passion about living out our lives in whatever it is that we do in total and constant glorification to our God. And you are doing just that! Your primary identity is that of a humble and devoted servant of our Lord Jesus Christ and being Autistic is completely secondary.

    You are an amazing encouragement to us all!

    Aaron and Beth Fortner

  4. Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your story. The amazing thing is that God made each of us perfect in His own image. I’m so thankful that you’ve been a part of my life. Thanks for always being the smile and hello that so many of us hope for on a daily basis.

    You’re such an amazing servant of God. Thank you for teaching us!


  5. Joe,
    I really do appreciate your transparency. All of us have things going on in the background, just not all of us have the courage to address it. I appreciate you and your life.

    John Hoover

  6. Joe, I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who haven’t fully understood your condition and I plea guilty to the fear that you describe.
    Thank you for enlightening me to your condition. God made us in His image and I can see God’s image exemplified in you through your transparency and love for people. I want to make a better effort to get to know you in the future. I admire the fact that you have been blessed with great clarity and boldness.

  7. Hello~! you dont know me at all but I really enjoyed reading this. I am a highschool student and am very involved with the special population, and spend many hours a week working with an autistic 12 year old boy in my neighborhood. I would love to understand this condition better. I would also love to meet you. I go to centennial highschool and my name is Katherine Gutschenritter

    I would love to hear from you


  8. Thanks for being so transparent and sharing your heart with us. God is using you in the lives of others more than you know! You are always so welcoming to me and have the best sense of humor :> Rock on Joe!

  9. Joe, you always have been and always will be a beautiful reflection of the face of Jesus. Thank you for your honesty in sharing and for reminding me to see every person as God’s beloved, no matter what.

  10. Joe,

    Dude… you have courage beyond belief! The willingness to share is only parllelled by your willingness to serve.

    As for myself, I am not one who has “feared communication with you” in any way, shape or form but I would admit that I am sometimes perplexed on how to approach you. However, if you can be “big enough” to share your heart and face your fear/uncomfortableness, then I should be able to do it as well! Thanks for leading!!!!!


  11. Joe, thank you for your amazing transparency! Your courage helps all of us to consider the things in our lives that we prefer to keep to ourselves out of fear of rejection. I thank God for living his life in and through you!

  12. Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your story and for re-befriending me…albeit acquaintance-like, through this medium and facebook. I’m so glad to learn more about you and love the way you give so much of yourself.

    Erin (a.k.a. Lady of the Slab)

  13. Thanks for sharing, Joe. I have come to appreciate the way you intelligently articulate yourself in this space and I think people appreciate the candor. I also think God creates us all with different gifts so we can truly put Christian community building into practice. If we were all the same, it would be easy and easy never leads to spiritual growth. Our differences give us a chance to prove that our Christianity has put down roots and goes to the core of our beings.

    Thanks again for sharing and we’ll see you at church.

    Charlie Stafford

  14. Hi Joe,
    I actually found your site looking for material on Brothers Karamazov – and yours is very insightful – so thank you for that. It is also my favorite book of all time. As I looked around at the rest of your site you can’t imagine how pleased, but not at all surprised, I was to find out that you are also autistic. One of your gifts is to preceive things in a book that most people don’t even have the patience to read. I have a 5 year old daughter who is autistic and we have had to work very hard with her to get her language up to speed; right now she is two years delayed. We are going to keep working with her to get her where she needs to be and there are some things that she does so well it blows our minds. It can be frustrating to have people say things and ask if she will ever live independetly and so forth but I just say of course she will and move on. They don’t know what they don’t know. Thank you for sharing your beautiful mind with so many – there are a lot of parents who need to understand all the possibilities for their kids.

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