I have been thinking all week about last Monday's reading, Mark 9:14-29. It's one of Mark's irritatingly cryptic healing narratives, where the disciples are rebuked (with no apparent justification) by Jesus for their lack of faith. That wasn't the bit that grabbed me: what interested me was the description of the symptoms of the child with an evil spirit which "has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid."
Usually interpreters take this to be a case of epilepsy, but as the parent of two children who cannot speak due to autism, it seemed to me that this must also be a possibility. B in particular can get into such a fury with the universe that she pounds on walls or the floor, doing herself damage like the child in Mark's account who would throw himself into the fire or the water - actually both our girls will perfectly happily throw themselves into the water with no regard to their own safety, but for fun rather than in rage. I'm struck by the way in which the child goes into convulsions as soon as Jesus comes into view, just as an autistic person can get deeply upset by new people or new routines. (And I don't know a lot about epilepsy, but I had the impression that it doesn't usually go with speechlessness.)
Obviously it's a bit pointless to diagnose a medical condition reported at second or third hand several decades after it happened two millennia ago, and it is not the point of the story anyway. The point of the story is the cure that Jesus effects on the child, who lies there at first seeming to be dead; but Jesus lifts him up by the hand. The moral lesson is the slightly obscure question of the level of belief of the disciples, and the child's father; in the raising up of the child from apparent death, there is also a clear foreshadowing of Jesus' own coming resurrection, which indeed is made explicit a couple of verses later.
The bit about the child's hand seemed very familiar to me. Both our daughters will take your hand and move it towards whatever it is they want done - a door that they want to have opened, food to get out of the kitchen cupboard, a particular video or DVD to put on. And I found myself wondering to what extent the child was actually "cured". If B were as easy-going and generally happy as U, she could probably still be living with us; if she were suddenly to become as able as U (who is still very very disabled), we would see it as a major advance.
Yet if they were not autistic, they would be completely different people; it would be very different from, say, healing someone who cannot walk, or has been born blind, or has leprosy. Part of accepting our children's situation has been realising that it is a fundamental part of what they are; at a very early stage I became suspicious of snake-oil merchants offering "cures". Elizabeth Moon writes about this from the autistic person's own point of view in her Nebula-winning novel Speed of Dark, and Charlotte Moore gives the perspective of a mother and a younger brother in George and Sam; I quoted her best line when I reviewed her book, but here it is again:
These mysterious, impossible, enchanting beings will always be among us, unwitting yardsticks for our own moral behaviour, uncomprehending challengers of our definition of what it means to be human.Mark doesn't tell us that the child who Jesus encountered was completely "cured"; just that he went home quietly with his father and (by implication, though not explicitly) started to speak a little. I think any parent in a situation like ours would be profoundly grateful for even a small shift in that direction.