After watching her autistic son struggle through a difficult school year, Kristina Chew joined the blogosphere in what she calls a moment of desperation. Charlie Fisher, her 9-year-old son, seemed to have stopped making progress. Worse, he was having tantrums, banging his head violently and hurting himself. His parents felt utterly helpless. It is one thing to see your child hurting himself, said Ms. Chew, who teaches Latin and Greek at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. It’s even worse when you don’t know how to help him.
To deal with her frustrations, to articulate her love for her child and to reach out to other parents in similar circumstances, Ms. Chew started a blog, and then a second one. One was a daily journal about Charlie. The other was a more general blog about autism and advocacy.
As the blog developed, the themes of witness and hope emerged, Ms. Chew said. Pretty soon I felt that having this witness online was important, and I was contacted by many people who wanted to share their witness and their hope.
The blogs inspired Ms. Chew and her husband, Jim Fisher, co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University in New York, to bring together the autism community for a conference, one very much connected to their Catholic faith and the Jesuit tradition of social justice. Entitled Autism and Advocacy: A Conference of Witness and Hope, the all-day event will take place in the McNally Amphitheater at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus on Oct. 27.
The conference’s keynote speaker will be Timothy Shriver, the chief executive officer and chairman of Special Olympics Inc. Among the other speakers will be Salvatore C. Ferrera, president of Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, Mark Osteen of Loyola College in Maryland, Lance Strate of Fordham, Mary Beth Walsh of Caldwell College in New Jersey and Rabbi Geoffrey J. Haber of Temple Emmanu-El in Closter, N.J.
The number of speakers from religious institutions is not a coincidence, as one might expect given the conference’s origins and location. Mr. Fisher hopes the conference will help expand faith-based concepts of social justice to include advocacy for people with disabilities.
Mr. Shriver believes that the beneficiaries of such a movement would not be limited to the disabled. I’ve spend a lot of time, he said, thinking about the convergence of issues like the religious search and disabilities. Most people, when they get involved in service to people with disabilities, invariably say that they got back more than they gave. You hear that sentence at every chicken-dinner gala, but it is very rarely explained. What is the gift that comes from these encounters? How are these moments transformative for those who give?
Examining those transformative moments, he said, could lead us to a greater appreciation of the gifts the disabled have to offer the rest of us. Mr. Shriver recalled being at Mass on a recent Sunday afternoon with his family, sitting behind another family with a boy who was autistic. The boy had a hard time keeping still and quiet, but with each small outburst, another member of the family soothed and encouraged him. It took some effort, but the boy made it through Mass.
Afterward, Mr. Shriver said, I asked my 11-year-old daughter what she thought of that family. I said I thought they were trying very hard to include him in the Mass. My daughter replied, I just think that was a very loving family.’ And I thought that my daughter learned a lesson and taught me a lesson that any homilist would be proud of.
It was a lesson about what it means to include everybody, what it means to love somebody despite difficulties. That is the message about disabilities that can prompt and promote religious transformation.
Ms. Chew and Mr. Fisher regularly bring Charlie to Mass. He is in a new school now and doing better, but it isn’t always easy in church, they said. I don’t know how much of it he understands, Ms. Chew said. If he starts to make some noise, it’s important that people realize it’s O.K.
In a sense, that is the message Ms. Chew hopes to deliver at the conference: It’s O.K. A lot of autism advocacy emphasizes the pain and frustration, and I’m not denying that a lot of families go through this, she said. But Jim and I want to send a more positive message. We feel that Charlie has made a huge difference in our lives. He has tremendous challenges, and he won’t be able to live independently of us. But trying to understand him has been a tremendous calling.
Most autism conferences are very specific. They’re run by professionals who talk about coping and about all kinds of alternative treatments. But we want people to hear something else. We want to explain how we can changemaybe not willingly, but in the end, for the better.
For Kristina Chew, Jim Fisher and so many others, every day brings new and perhaps unimaginable challenges. But, to hear them tell it, with these challenges comes grace. They look to their faith not only for strength, but for support as well.
The word catholic has a sense of being universal, Ms. Chew said. The church is for everyone, Charlie included. To me, that is not as simple as saying people won’t mind that he goes to church, but that we understand the ways in which he is different are part of our universality. He doesn’t have to change to fit a mold.