I opened the prison ministry box, first time, and found my name on your file. I expected maybe a murderer or a drug dealer, not a transgendered Christian minister re-incarcerated for possession of a firearm. Anyway, you’ve been assigned to me, your volunteer pen pal.
I know that there are many ways to be a prisoner. I have a 25-year-old son, Ben, severely autistic. My experience as a single father and caregiver opened my heart to the pain of the least, the lost, and the lonely. I’ve learned that some of the “least” have what the world needs most: the gift, as Jean Vanier says, of leading us gently into the depths of our own hearts, there to find patience, acceptance, and love. After reading the letters in your file, I believe you have that gift.
There’s another connection, too. Last summer I helped found and facilitate AIM Ranch, a residential campus for young adults with autism. One of the campers, a 21-year-old nicknamed Zero, told me that he’d been in every mental hospital, juvenile detention facility, and group home in the vicinity of Dexter, Missouri. Zero’s dad, a professor of agronomy and plant pathology, wanted him to be a missionary, but that didn’t work out so well. In fact, with one important exception, almost everything Zero tried -- to get a driver’s license, sustain a friendship, get and hold a job – didn’t work out so well for him.
My first night on duty at AIM Ranch, I was working on my computer in the common area when Zero passed through on the way to the kitchen, dressed for bed.
“I’m gonna kill myself tonight,” he said. “Yep, tonight’s the night.”
“How are you going to do that, Zero? Rope, knife, gun, pills?”
“I’m gonna slow down my hawt until it stops.”
I could have called Shoal Creek and had him taken to the state hospital, but I’d seen the term astral projection in his email headers, and I had my doubts. “So you’re gonna stop your heart, leave your body, and come back a better person?”
“I’m not comin’ back.”
“Leave your feet sticking out the end of the bed,” I should have said. “Tomorrow morning I’ll tickle your toes. If they don’t twitch, I’ll call 911 and tell them to dump your body in the creek. We have another camper waiting for your bed.”
Zero survived the night, and so did I … but not without checking on him every few hours.
As the summer wore on I became intrigued by this smart, funny, engaging young adult who seemed to have so much going for him, but who couldn’t pull his life together or make anything go right for long. Why couldn’t he live independently? The camp supervisor summed it up: “There is only one reality,” she told him, “and you aren’t in it.” Zero’s tenure at AIM Ranch ended in chaos under threat of violence. He was taken into custody and is serving a sentence in a state-supervised ward.
My heart goes out to Zero. I’ve continued my research into autism and psychosis, and discovered that he and Ben have a lot in common: what Dr. Bernie Rimland, founder of the autism recovery movement, called “dyslogic.” Both Zero and Ben are challenged to think logically, plan for the future, control aggressive impulses, learn from their mistakes, and understand the consequences of their actions. And if Rimland’s associate, brain researcher William J. Walsh, is right, Ben and Zero share a similar biochemistry. I’ve also learned that there are many people like Zero in our jails, mental institutions, homeless shelters, and prisons. Where, under different circumstances, Ben could be too. And that’s why I’m writing to you, Johnnie. I hope to learn how better to help my son.
BTW – about Zero, the exception I mentioned? He’s a terrific salesman. At the Austin Rainbow Pride annual celebration, he outsold every other soft drink vendor five to one.
Johnnie, I don’t know you well yet, but it’s possible that you, I, and my son Ben and Zero are already connected in ways I don’t fully understand. If you’re interested, I’ll send you Bernard Rimland’s “lost” book, Dyslogic Syndrome, published two years after his death. Rimland points to ways that both autism and dsylogic can be treated by nutrients, supplements, and food to balance biochemistry and nurture growth toward a more mature brain. He believes that pharmaceuticals should be a last, not first, resort. It’s a fascinating read, full of hope.
I look forward to hearing from you again.
Yours in Christ,
Dan E. Burns
Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a
25-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism.
Through his new dba, Appleseed Ventures, Dan empowers parents to organize
communities where their adult ASD children and friends can live, work, play,