Living with Autism and Growing in Faith
by Ron Sandison
My development began normally until I reached eighteen months. I began to rapidly regress, losing my ability to communicate with words. Because my mom had two neurotypical children before me, she was quick to realize my development and communication abilities were severely delayed and immediately took me to the family pediatrician.
The pediatrician dismissed my mom’s concerns, explaining that, “Men are like fine wine. You have to give them time to develop; women are like delicate flowers and blossom quickly.”
My mom is not one to wait around. She immediately advocated for me to receive speech therapy. As a result, from ages 2 to 16, I received intense speech therapy. When I was seven years old, my speech was so delayed my brother Chuckie bragged to his friends, “You’ve got to meet my brother Ronnie. I think he is from Norway since he speaks Norwegian!” For a while, Chuckie and the rest of my family were the only ones able to interpret my language.
As I entered kindergarten, the school’s specialists wanted to label me as emotionally impaired. My mom refused this label and informed the professionals, “My son’s disability is not emotional but neurological.” She diligently researched the top professionals for learning disabilities in the area and paid to have me retested. A neuropsychologist from Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit confirmed that my disability was indeed neurological and defined as autism.
The educational specialists warned my parents that I would never read beyond a seventh-grade level, attend college, excel in athletics, or have meaningful relationships. But my mom was undeterred by these generalities and instead became more determined to help me succeed in life by developing my unique gifts. She helped me gain self-confidence through creative activities, such as painting, drawing, reading, and writing short stories. My mom quit her job as an art teacher and became a fulltime “Ron Teacher.”
I have a bachelor’s degree in theology and psychology and a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University. My wife Kristen and I were married on December 7, 2012. On March 20, 2016, my daughter, Makayla Marie, was born; and just a couple of weeks later, on April 4, 2016, Charisma House published my first book A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom.
There is nothing a mother’s intuition, persistence, perseverance, and love can’t accomplish. Both of my parents chose to focus on my abilities and the talents God had given me, and as a result, I flourished.
Inspired by the Wisdom books in the Bible, my mom often recited to me, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings. He won’t serve before obscure men” (Proverbs 22:29). With my mom’s wisdom and guidance, I was able to hone in on my skills which has led to a prosperous and fulfilling life in the medical field.
When I was in the fourth grade, I won the Detroit Edison Drawing contest for Oakland County by creating a poster with my stuffed animal Prairie Pup and his furry friends building a tree fort near electrical wires. The caption on the poster stated, “Don’t Become a Furry Fried Friend by Building Your Fort Near Power Lines.” For the prize, Prairie and I met the captain of the Pistons basketball team, Isiah Thomas, who was later inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
Dr. Temple Grandin encourages parents, “Don’t squash interests—exploit them!”
My parents were masters at exploiting my talents. Remember that the next time your child develops an unusual interest. You too can exploit your child’s talents for the better! In eighth grade, when Prairie Pup was expelled from the Rochester Public Schools. My new special was running track.
In the spring of 1994, my mom and I finally reached a roadblock beyond our control. In my junior year of high school, my life was on the right track. I had committed my life to serving Christ. I made the honor roll two straight semesters, was a star athlete in track, and memorized over 2,000 Scriptures.
That spring, our 3,200-meter relay team finished 12th in the State of Michigan. As we drove back from the state final, the anchor on our relay, commented to our coach, “Next year we could be the fastest 3,200 relay, but Ron will be past the age requirement!”
The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and said, “I will make a way for you.”
I said, “God will provide a way for me to compete.”
I was past the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) age requirement by three months because I had repeated kindergarten due to learning disabilities caused by autism. My parents and I believed that God would provide a way for me to run, and we prayed daily for a miracle. In May of 1994, as my senior year quickly approached, my mom contacted the MHSAA and they stated, “Due to your son being past the age requirement, we will not allow him to compete!” My parents contacted attorneys and learned that a lawsuit would cost over $40,000.
As the cross-country season drew near, the circumstances seemed hopeless. My parents told me, “There’s nothing we can do now but trust God and place your track season into His hands. He has seen all your hard work and determination.”
In June 1994, I returned from a five-mile run and grabbed the Detroit Free Press. I saw on the front page an article about Craig Stanley, a fellow athlete past the age requirement. Our situations were remarkably similar. We both were born in May 1975, each of us repeated early elementary grades, we were both cross-country and track runners. Most importantly, Craig and I both had faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. My mom immediately contacted his family. Our families met and we joined forces in prayer.
After I rededicated my life to Christ, God placed on my heart a desire to be re-baptized to demonstrate my commitment to Christ. I was baptized at nine-months-old. The day I was baptized, I said my first word: “Mom.”
On Sunday June 10, 1994, I was baptized. As the pastor lifted me from the water, he said, “God has given me a word: Joel 2:25, ‘I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and young locust, the other locust and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you.’ Your blessings will begin today.”‘
When I got home and checked the answering machine, I had an unexpected message from an attorney stating, “I believe your case will set precedent for the American Disabilities Act, and I want to represent you pro bono.”
On August 25, 1994, just six hours before my first cross-country meet, U.S. District Court Judge Feikens granted a temporary restraining order to allow Craig and me to participate in cross-country and track. Twenty days later, Judge Feikens instated a permanent injunction allowing us to compete for the rest of the season.
My parents’ faith and love helped me have a defining moment as our 3,200 relay team set the school record and ran the second fastest time out of 182 teams. During this season, God called me to be a minister and preach the gospel. Michigan Christian College, now Rochester University, gave me an athletic scholarship for cross-country and track. I finished my freshman year making the Dean’s List and received an academic scholarship to Oral Roberts University. Six years later, I graduated with a Master of Divinity with highest honors. I currently have memorized over 15,000 Scriptures, including 22 complete books of the New Testament.
My passion in life is to empower families who have children with autism to help their child reach his or her full potential. I interview amazing people with autism and their families like Armani Williams, a NASCAR Driver, and Rachel Barcellona, Miss Tampa, and share their insight in parenting and their faith in Christ.
Ron Sandison is the founder of Spectrum Inclusion and an advisory board member of the Art of Autism and the Els Center of Excellence. He is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom and Views from the Spectrum: A Window into Life and Faith with Your Neurodivergent Child.
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