“Marianna’s artwork reflects the beauty of her autism.” As soon as I typed the words, I started backspacing. The beauty of her autism? Since when did I find beauty in her autism? There is no way I would have said that a few years ago; I only saw my daughter’s autism as a set of very frustrating behaviors that I couldn’t control.
Marianna began showing signs she might have autism spectrum disorder at age four, but since she also has Down syndrome, I didn’t recognize it at first. By the time she was 11, my husband Rob and I were so frustrated with some of Marianna’s behaviors that I scheduled her for an appointment with a psychiatric specialist who could diagnose her. The experts say discerning a dual diagnosis is difficult because there is so little research on it. Also, some of the behaviors of autism spectrum disorder are also seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
I remember the day we went to the doctor very well because Marianna gave the psychiatrist a run for her money! She repeatedly turned off the lights and refused to do anything the doctor asked. The doctor ushered us out to see if she could get more out of Marianna alone. When we returned to the office, the lights were off, the blinds were shut, the doctor was exacerbated, and Marianna was lying with feet draped over a chair looking perfectly content staring at the ceiling. It was clear, Marianna had won.
Marianna always wins. She can hold out as long as it takes to get her way.
Unlike her brother, there is nothing I can threaten her with to make her care enough to comply. Stubbornness can be a trait of Down syndrome, but this behavior goes further. Marianna needs things a certain way to be able to function. All the doors in the house must be shut, the coasters on the coffee table must be aligned neatly in the corners, the fan must be off in the living room but the fan in her playroom must be on, she must have two lemons and one lime in her water. This isn’t a preference, it’s a requirement or she becomes very agitated and her behavior escalates.
Where is the beauty in that?
Marianna’s artwork helped me see things from a different perspective. It started with her obsessively drawing shapes such as triangles and squares. Then, she started drawing stick figure people—pretty basic stuff for a teenager. But one day Rob came in and said, “Look at how her drawings have improved, she’s added fingers and toes to her people!”
Over time, her drawings got more and more detailed. She perfected a watermelon pattern complete with hundreds of seeds. She has since drawn that pattern countless times and in every color. She now has a huge collection of beautiful artwork to her credit. One day I was organizing all of her drawings and noticed the order, routine, and repetition in each of them.
That’s when I realized how much her work reflects the beauty of her personality—the personality of a person who has autism.
Genesis 1:27 says every person reflects the image of God. As I reflected on this truth, I realized Marianna’s repetitive designs reflect a God of order who raises the sun and lowers the moon every single day. A God of repetition who never tires of sending the ocean’s tide in and out right on schedule. A God who values diversity enough to design each and every person, somehow making billions of us similar but different. The truth is we really are all more alike than we are different.
In the battle over the closed doors in our house, I’ve realized I want the doors open as badly as Marianna wants them closed. My attitude reflects our culture’s insistence that people with disabilities must fit into our world instead of the other way around. It’s time for us to see the beauty in the way they do things and the way God’s image is displayed in their being.
Marianna is delighted to be sharing her artwork with a community on Instagram. @mariannasministry reflects her purpose which is to be herself, and in doing so she reminds us we are all a reflection of God’s image.
Originally published on the author’s blog