One Family’s Travails and Triumphs With Autism


James Autry and Sally Pederson

James Autry
and his wife, Sally Pederson, graciously shared the story of how their autistic son changed their life in my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything.

Autry, the author of ten books, had a distinguished career at Meredith Corporation where he was senior vice president of its Magazine Group. Pederson is the former Lieutenant Governor of Iowa.

Here are some moving excerpts from their story. Autry’s quotes are in regular type. Pederson’s quotes are in italics.

Sally and I were married in 1982. Three years later, when our son Ronald was two years old, we knew something was terribly wrong. His subsequent diagnosis of autism, and my response to that diagnosis, changed everything in my life. Not only did it accelerate my process of awareness and consciousness, it profoundly changed my priorities. I was a highly paid senior corporate executive at Meredith Corp. and even had thoughts about becoming CEO some day. Instead, as I watched Ronald’s struggle to find his place in the world, I realized that I couldn’t do this anymore. I couldn’t keep traveling twenty-two weeks a year. Sally and I sat down and agreed that as soon as we had saved enough that we could get by financially, I would take early retirement.

We came to terms with the immediate reality of Ron’s autism by simply doing what we had to do—the education, the speech therapy. I tried to communicate with Ron in ways that were not traditional, such as putting my head against his head at night while he slept and trying to visualize positive outcomes. As you do these things, it sinks in. You come to grips with it little by little. It’s not an Aha! experience. You don’t say, “Gee, I’m over the grief now.” What you say is, “There’s so much joy in this life that it overwhelms the grief.”

Jim and I realized that we had to grieve for the child who was never going to be, but there is also this incredible joy at the child you do have. Ron has been a gift in many ways. He’s also allowed me to do something more meaningful with my life than I could ever have imagined had I not had a child with a disability.

My sensitivity to the world, my approach to work, my creative writing, my relationship with my wife, almost everything shifted. Having a child with a disability creates great turmoil and conflict for some people, but it bonded Sally and me even closer. We knew that we didn’t have any personal issues that were nearly as compelling as the need to work hard so that Ronald could find his place in the world and have as fulfilling and productive a life as possible.

On a very personal level, Ron’s autism made me really appreciate my husband. He had been a very successful and prominent figure, and he was willing to set aside his needs and be extremely supportive to me, and that changed our relationship. It was very healthy for both of us. It made our love grow deeper and increased our appreciation for one another.

At the age of fifty-eight, when Ron was eight, I left Meredith Corp. so that I could spend more time supporting Sally and help care for our son. I credit Ronald with enabling me to let go of the corporate ambition and move toward a more centered and spiritual place. I realized that I hadn’t been such a terrific father to my two older sons from my first marriage. I had worked all the time and was career obsessed—it’s an old story and a cliché. Ronald’s autism gave me an opportunity to be a better father. When Sally was elected to the office of Lieutenant Governor, I realized that that was a great gift to me. The gift was for me to do all the child care, the packing lunches, the going on band trips, the cooking, the shopping, the bill paying. It became a spiritual pursuit for me—finding the spiritual in everyday things.

We traded places. I used to be the one waiting for Jim to come home from the important work he was doing out there—and sometimes I resented it. Suddenly, he was at home waiting for me. It can be very demanding and frustrating to parent a child with special needs. Sometimes I wouldn’t be home for dinner, and couldn’t even call him to let him know. If you’re the person on the other end of that, it can make you feel like the other person isn’t caring about you. The very fact that my husband took on that support role and did it in such a loving and caring way, and never showed any signs that he was resentful, was a growth experience for me. We came to the conclusion that every marriage could benefit from this kind of role reversal, because the experience helps you appreciate what your partner has been living.

I was already sensitive to disability issues and had published one book of poetry before Ronald was born. Eventually, Ronald’s situation began to find expression in my life through my poetry. I’ve also written quite a few essays about my experiences as a father of a child with a disability. It’s a little irritating when people say, “Oh, you have a special child.” That’s their euphemism for saying a child with a disability. Even though they’re trying to be nice, “special” is a patronizing and pitying term. You realize that disability does not define you. In my new book, I have an essay called Time to Give Those Miracle Stories a Rest. I begin it by saying, “As a Christian and a father of a child with a disability, I want to say that Jesus didn’t do us any big favors by healing all those people. Because in effect, he was saying, ‘Well, you’re not perfect the way you are, you need to be fixed.’ I prefer Mr. Rogers, who said, ‘I love you just the way you are.’” The point is, we have a huge cultural bias that people with disabilities are somehow lesser people, and not as human as the people who have all of their faculties.

Ronald’s motor skills were, and still are, very deficient. He couldn’t walk without falling and smacking his head on the sidewalk. I wanted to protect him, to catch him and keep him from falling. My wife was the courageous one. She said, “No, we’ve got to let him fall.” We were constantly coaching and teaching him and conditioning his muscles. We spent hours with him sitting on a medicine ball, rolling him forward toward the floor, pulling his arms up and encouraging him, until finally one day he put his arms up and caught himself.

The sense of loss and grief over having a disabled child still goes on. Just a few months ago, Sally and I had a good cry together. It just hit us that there was still a long, hard road ahead for Ronald. He’s now twenty-three years old, has his own apartment, and rides a bus every day to the Drake University Law School’s legal clinic, where he scans court documents into a computer and manipulates them into a database for research by law students. He’s doing as well as you could ever expect him to do, but he is still very juvenile in his behavior. There’s residual grief that’s always hanging there, but it isn’t depressing. We have a lot of fun with Ronald; we really appreciate his talents and gifts. Still, it can be very wearing. It comes and goes, but it doesn’t come very often.

Click here to learn about Stacey Levin’s powerful and poignant play, Autistic License.

Click here to view all my posts related to my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything.

Click here to see all my posts related to autism.


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2 Responses to “One Family’s Travails and Triumphs With Autism”

  1. KJ Says:

    We adopted three boys with various forms of autism and appreciate those who would blog on such an important subject. People more than ever need to be informed about autism and what life is like for those so affected since this debilitating condition seems to be on the rise.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    KJ, you and your spouse are the real heroes of the world. I am amazed at people like you who adopt children in need and give them the loving homes they need. May your lives be showered with blessings!

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