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Mark Arnold

Is my child’s identity defined by his disability?

James’ journey through life has not been an accident; it has and continues to have purpose.

Foto: Bonnie Kittle. Unsplash (CC0).

What defines us?  Where is our identity to be found?  

Big questions, and for each person the answer is likely to be different. What about our children, what defines them and is the key identifier in their life?  As parents we might have different ideas about this too, especially if our children have additional needs or a disability…

There are many ways to define and describe James, many ways to suggest what his identity is to be found in… boy, brother, son, loving, teenager, autistic, joyful, disabled, friend, British, anxious, fun… and many more.  

Are any of these the primary defining quality or characteristic for James?  Does one of them stand out above any of the others?

There are plenty of people who tell me that James is defined primarily as autistic, that this is what underpins everything else… although few of them have actually met him.  

Others will point to his sex and gender as being paramount, or his race and ethnicity, or his age. Professionals in the health, social care and education world who are involved with James will highlight his disabilities (as well as being autistic, James has learning difficulties and epilepsy).  

Those that know him well are more likely to point to James’ loving, joyful character, that he is fun to spend time with.  As his family we are likely to favour definitions that link him to us as son, brother, etc.

Are any of these approaches wrong?  No, not really.  So why do people all have a different starting point for how to define, and find identity in, the same person? 

Well, often it can be about superimposing our own definition or identity, the things we see as paramount in our lives, onto others.

The autistic community are more likely to see James as autistic first. Friends are likely to see him as loving, joyful and fun; when I saw James’ school friend Brendan and his mum the week before we started helping James get back into school, and said to Brendan that James was coming back, he literally jumped for joy!  

Brendan has loved seeing James back in school, and James has loved seeing Brendan!  Health, social care and education professionals will see James as a ‘case’; there will be an extensive file all about him and this will focus on his health, care and education needs, as understood through the descriptions of his various diagnoses.

As James’ family, we see all of this, but also see the unconditional love in James’ eyes, the cheeky smirk he has when he is up to mischief, the anxiety he experiences when something has changed that he struggles to understand. 

We experience the highs and lows of life with James; we know that he loves going to the farm shop or to the airfield café, we know he doesn’t like loud crowded places; we know he prefers baths to showers and what his favourite snacks are.

But are any of these the single most important, defining identifier for James?  No, not really, because there is one way that James is defined that is above all of these.  James, first and foremost, is a child of God.

“Some people did accept him and did believe in his name. He gave them the right to become children of God.” John 1:12 (NIrV)

When James and I pray together, and James joins in with some of his limited repertoire of words, his faith surpasses verbal communication.  When James says “Yes!” Jesus loves “Me!” the light of the Holy Spirit is in his eyes.  When we finish a prayer by James saying “Amen!”, he has the peace of God on him.

James’ identity, his definition, is in God and that surpasses every other definition; it is superior to any other identity that we might claim for him, ourselves, or for others.

“This is because all of you who were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. You have put him on as if he were your clothes. There is no Jew or Gentile. There is no slave or free person. There is no male or female. That’s because you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:27-28 (NIrV)

People might challenge that, to say that they are right and James’ identity is what they say it is. They might ask how it is possible that James identity, what defines him, is found in something so difficult to tie down and describe as being a child of God. 

All I would say is that James’ journey through life has not been an accident; it has and continues to have purpose, and that purpose is not found in any one characteristic or definition we might give him, but in the amazing love of God for his child and how through James’ life this love is being shared with many.

“See what amazing love the Father has given us! Because of it, we are called children of God. And that’s what we really are! The world doesn’t know us because it didn’t know him.” 1 John 3:1 (NIrV)

That love is where James’ identity is found, that is what defines him, everything else is secondary. God has a plan for James’ life and is working it out through him and with him. The same is true of any of us, any of our children, who accept him and believe in him; a wonderful plan formed before each of us was born.

“I know the plans I have for you,” announces the Lord. “I want you to enjoy success. I do not plan to harm you. I will give you hope for the years to come.” Jeremiah 29:11 (NIrV)

Does that mean that it’s all going to be blissful and wonderful? No, we live in a broken world and tough things happen, but God journey’s through life with his children and even the hard stuff doesn’t remove us from his love and his plan for us.

“We were also chosen to belong to him. God decided to choose us long ago in keeping with his plan. He works out everything to fit his plan and purpose.” Ephesians 1:11 (NIrV)

James is God’s handiwork; a child of God, chosen by him for the plan he has for James’ life. This is what defines James, that is what his identity is found in, that is his destiny.

Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.




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