I’m Niki Walden, and you may have read part of my story last week. Here’s more on how God’s helping me live deeply.
When it comes to other peoples’ lives, I’m a glass-half-full person. When it comes to my own life, I’m a glass-half-empty person. I’m a big worrier at heart, always have been- even as a child. My daughter Annabelle’s autism diagnosis a couple years ago was about the third major crisis in my life, so I guess each of the crises reinforced my natural bent toward fearing the worst. At first with Annabelle, all I could think about were the negatives (which she, I have to say, has blown out of the water!). The first sign of her being autistic was she never spoke. At 18 months old, my husband took note of that, and by two years old, we were getting her into speech therapy. She said her first word at 28 months, so she has said words in the past -full and clear words- but she says them very few and far between. That’s why we call her non-speaking, not non-verbal- she does make noises, and she has said words in the past. When she was two and a half, the therapists saw other signs of autism and told us we should get her tested. This was May of 2020, during COVID, when all of our appointments were remote. I was like, ‘How can you make that judgment if you’re not seeing her in person?’ For the next six months, I wrestled with God. I was crying on my bed once or twice a week. I even looked up on the Internet: ‘What celebrities are autistic?’ (There are quite a few, actually.) It took awhile. I was angry and upset. I didn’t know anything about autism, so in my mind Annabelle wasn’t going to be at all self-sufficient; you go to the worst possible scenarios (which rarely end up being the case). Finally, when we had her tested in October, I was able to accept that she might be on the spectrum. So when we got the diagnosis, it was like, ‘Okay, we know.’ It wasn’t so bad. And this is where I most clearly see God working with me through all this: to get me to trust Him more.
I had a friend who’d received care from a Stephen Minister at CSPC, and I knew I needed encouragement. Six months after Annabelle’s diagnosis, I thought ‘Well, I can take a chance and just see.’ So I contacted Jeanette George (CSPC’s care coordinator) and asked, ‘I know this is a long shot, but do you have any Stephen Minister who has experience with special needs in their family?’ God answered and brought Linda Guy, who has an older autistic grandson, to be my Stephen Minister. We met and clicked instantly. I guess I mostly needed reassurance this would be okay, and it made me feel better to talk to somebody who was further down the line. (Linda’s grandson is 17, while Annabelle’s only 5.) It was like seeing a glimpse of ‘It does get better.’ And that’s what most people say- as your child gets older, it does get better. In Linda’s case, her grandson’s doing really well. I also loved that Linda was big on prayer. So whenever I had a big issue –like our daughter experiencing seizures a little more than a year ago and being diagnosed with epilepsy, in addition to autism- she said, ‘I have the whole Stephen Ministry team praying for you.’ I liked how she prayed for me and for the specific issues I shared with her at the end of each weekly meeting. Even when we couldn’t meet in person and had a phone conversation instead, she always prayed over me and over Annabelle. That’s the beauty of having a Stephen Minister- they’re not there to fix things, but to listen, care, and pray alongside you if you’re struggling. Linda really was tangible evidence of God’s presence to me. After meeting for a year as Stephen Ministry caregiver and care receiver, we’ve now transitioned to a long term relationship of basically mentor and mentee. But I wouldn’t have the gift of Linda if I hadn’t reached out for a Stephen Minister.
(NOTE: Interested in help from a Stephen Minister? Women may email Jeanette George (email@example.com) and men may email Brad Richardson (firstname.lastname@example.org).)
As far as expectations for the future, right now Annabelle’s on the spectrum and she has seizures- we don’t know if she’ll grow out of them. If she doesn’t, she won’t be able to drive a car. We’ll have to make sure she’s okay in the shower, stuff like that. When you think of that, you realize she might live with us forever. So our goal now is for her to be as independent as she can be, living with us or living in a tiny house in the backyard. When I have thoughts of what will happen when we die, especially if she stays non-speaking, I’m like, ‘God, you already know what’s going to happen, and I just pray you bring somebody into her life to help her and guide her.’ We already see Him doing that in some pretty big ways. For instance, ever since we came back from COVID, Annabelle has been going to church, which sometimes is very difficult or almost impossible for special needs children and their families. She goes with a buddy. Our family friend Julie Bowman (a nurse who knows a lot about autism) and her 10-year-old daughter Lydia watch Annabelle in one of the CSPC classrooms, with no one else in there. All the lights are on, the toys are in there, but she just has Lydia and Julie there. Lydia, of course, is the one who primarily plays with her. After two years, Annabelle’s gotten so familiar with Lydia she just takes her hand, guides her everywhere and plays with her. She uses her AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) device to talk with them. We’re deeply blessed to have these friends volunteering to watch her so Jason and I can go to the church service. As I said, the main theme of my life is that God’s been working on me to trust Him in the future, and sometimes He’s kind enough to give windows into His grace you can literally see. Linda, Julie, and Lydia are those windows for me. I’m looking forward to next week, when you’ll hear more about my Stephen Ministry relationship with Linda from her perspective.