“Rather than healing our child of his developmental disability, God healed me of my spiritual disability,” Diane Dokko, author of Unbroken Faith: Spiritual Recovery for the Special Needs Parents
By Ron Sandison
Diane Dokko Kim felt devastated when her son Jeremy at 18 months was diagnosed with autism. She shares, “I was completely shocked, devastated—and quite frankly—furious at God. Our family had just returned from serving abroad on missions and committed ourselves to full-time ministry. Then we got this. I felt as if God had betrayed us. We expected God to have big plans for us. He did. We just never expected ‘blessing and favor’ to include autism.”
Faith and writing empowered Diane and her family when facing the autism diagnosis of their son. “Faith in a real and relevant God has been the game-changer in our unexpected journey with autism. Initially the diagnosis completely gutted my faith. The very thing we thought would destroy our faith in God was the very set of circumstances that drove us to Him, actually proving His relevance and reliability for us. What the enemy intended for harm and destruction, God redeemed and repurposed into a blessing. I dare say that God even used autism to galvanize our faith. So much so that I ended up writing an entire book about it: Unbroken Faith: Spiritual Recovery for the Special-Needs Parent.
Some of the therapies which helped Jeremy learn social and life skills included ABA therapy, especially in his early years. Other interventions like RDI, speech therapy, facilitated social groups, and modeling were also helpful. Diane and her husband were intentional with teaching Jeremy to engage with the community and actively pursue relationships with family, friends and church.
The greatest challenge raising Jeremy is his lack of verbal communication. “One of the hardest things has been the lack of communication. Our son is primarily non-verbal. Thankfully, after many years of intensive intervention he can express basic needs and wants. But we’re not able to sustain a conversation with him. Not being able to understand his needs or get to know his thoughts, struggles, pains, and frustrations is hard, especially when autistic behaviors can be difficult to decode.”
A dear friend of the family offered to babysit Jeremy when he was a very hyperactive preschooler. Diane tried to educate and warn her of his tendency to elope. It takes but a nanosecond for Jeremy to slip away. But she didn’t really register what that meant… until he disappeared on her at the mall. The friend panicked as she frantically searched for Jeremy with mall security. After what must have felt like an eternity, she reasoned, “If I was Jeremy, where would I go?”
Mall security found him about 30 feet away at the nearby Lego store. He was contentedly chewing a foam Lego axe. The friend was filled with tears of relief. She ended up buying the Lego for him to commemorate the harrowing experience.
Diane and her husband’s greatest worry is who will take care of Jeremy after they die. This is the most pervasive worry for all parents of children with special needs. The Lord has given Diane and her family comfort and assurance about this through His Word (she dedicated a key chapter in her book on this topic entitled, “I Can Never Die: A Secure Surrender”). This underlying source of worry drives Diana daily to surrender to God’s providence, while preparing for the future to the best of her ability.
Four tips Diane shares with parents whose child was recently diagnosed with autism:
- Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of unmet expectations.
For most of us, autism was not what we planned for. God understands the pain of dashed expectations over beloved children. In Genesis 1, the first Father of the universe prepared and expected perfection for His firstborn children. But those children didn’t turn out the way He expected, either. And His heart was filled with pain. He understands and shares our grief. Take the time to authentically grieve the loss of expectations we may have had for our child, for our family, and for ourselves.
Our grief matters to God, because if we cannot grieve, we cannot heal. And if we cannot heal, we’re unable to open our hearts or hands to receive the new blessings God wants to reveal in, through and for our children.
- Leave room for hope.
Dare to dream new dreams. This may not be what we expected for our child or for our family, but God is a redeeming God. He has a plan and purpose for our children, exactly the way they are to bless them, and make them a blessing.
- Connect with other special needs parents who are further along the journey.
You are not alone! Fellow special needs parents understand and can support you in ways no one else can. Ideally, they will be ones who have “reckoned” with God and have come out of their grief with even stronger faith, hope, resiliency and LOTS of wisdom and encouragement to share. And practically, they also have the insider connections to the most helpful and useful resources.
- Get help.
Don’t be too proud/ashamed to accept offers of help, and even ask for it! Ironically, this is so hard for us to do, even when we desperately need support. It’s a common dynamic that friends and family usually want to help us, but don’t know how. So we need to help them help us. I created a tool called the Help Wish List, to help the helpers, and enable struggling families to get the support they need with dignity.
Diane was inspired to write Unbroken Faith: Spiritual Recovery for the Special Needs Parents to encourage families both emotionally and spiritual. She shares:
“When our son was diagnosed in 2004, my husband and I were fresh off the mission field and had committed ourselves to full-time ministry. Then, we got hit with this. Feeling trapped and chagrined, I felt as if I had nowhere to go with my shock, grief –and quite honestly—my outrage. So I poured out my anguish into a password-protected journal. For years, I wrestled privately with God. How could He do this to us? How can I trust Him after this? After about five years, rather than healing our child of his developmental disability, God healed me of my spiritual disability. The very thing I thought would destroy my relationship with God was the very thing that drew me closer to Him, and to understanding His heart, anew.
Unbroken Faith is the book I wish had existed for that crucial time, immediately post-diagnosis. Like most special-needs parents, I Googled everything I could get my hands on. I found many resources that targeted my son’s disability, but few that addressed my own spiritual needs. Nothing scratched where I itched – or, more accurately, where my soul ached.
After God healed my heart through His Word, I was asked to lead a special needs parent support group. As I got to know other families with a wide range of diagnoses, I marveled that regardless how rare a diagnosis, no matter how different our cultures or socio-economic backgrounds, we all shared the same core struggles: How could God let this happen? Why us? Is He going to fix this? If not, how will I get through this? How can I trust Him again?
We all felt spiritually disillusioned; our faith “broken.” Especially when 90% of our families are unable to attend church. Who else hungers more for hope and encouragement that God has a plan for our children and our families? In a world that devalues those who are different, who else needs to hear the Good News that our children are wonderfully and fearfully made?
God was calling me to comfort others with the comfort I had received from Christ. The pain that once wrecked us, God had redeemed and repurposed into a calling to minister to others.
Unbroken Faith is the collective, universal experience of ALL families affected by disability. The illustrations in the book speak to the most common denominators that all special-needs families face: feeling devastated by unexpected news, having to re-calibrate our expectations, feeling overwhelmed, unqualified, fearful, and isolated. No matter what the disability or special need, Jesus is an equal opportunity healer and Redeemer.
We all live as residents of a broken planet. None of us are exempt from getting pierced by its jagged edges. At some point, all believers must contend with “How could God, let this happen? Is He going to fix this? If not, how will I get through it? How will I trust God again?” Whether it’s a diagnosis, disorder, divorce, death –or the death of a dream—everyone has to reconcile our faith with disappointment.”
Some advice Diane shares for encouraging parents, “The first thing I try to do before offering any kind of sharing is to listen. Listen has the same letters as silent. I remember vividly when we first received the stunning diagnosis, well-meaning friends, family and church members tried to say things to encourage us like, “God only gives special kids to special parents. It’s because He knew you could handle it.” I knew they meant well but it only stung an already bleeding heart.
In contrast, wise and compassionate friends simply listened. They received and validated how I felt, regardless of how raw, unruly and conflicted my emotions were. They were willing to show up and hold an emotional barf bag for me. They let me fill it, without judgment or admonishment to be more spiritual, or “Just trust God!”
Diane has discovered encouragement through the Scriptures and the Biblical characters.
Moses, too, felt completely unqualified and overwhelmed at God’s assignment for him to deliver Israel from the slavery of Egypt. But God reassured Moses that He would provide all Moses would need for the task. This theme is repeated in the New Testament, when Jesus calls, “unschooled and ordinary men,” to be His disciples, and ultimately, to foundation for the Church.
In Isaiah, God is the Father of a Wounded Son. He understands our feral protection over our children who are misunderstood, mocked and unfairly judged by the world. He, too, shares in our outrage over the injustice and rejection for dearly loved children face, too.
At Gethsemane and on the Cross, Jesus, too, cried out the same words we special needs parents also cry out to God in our times of distress: “God, is there any other way? Please spare us from this suffering! Why have You forgotten us?”
Diane’s publishing journey is another testimony of God’s miracles and ordained purposes. Back in 2012, knowing that the subject matter was considered “niche” in the publishing industry, she originally planned to self-publish. But God undeniably redirected her to pursue traditional publishing. In 2016, Diane attended the Mount Hermon Christian Writers conference, where multiple writing coaches strongly advised her to pitch the manuscript to agents and editors, instead. The last night of the conference she pitched to a literary agent. The agent signed her immediately. Within two months of her agent submitting it to publishing houses she had an offer.
Three main topics Diane Dokko Kim speaks about are:
- Practical training on special needs for church staff and ministry teams
- Encouragement for special needs parents and mother’s groups
- Inspirational messages for general audiences on themes of faith, discipleship (spiritual transformation), redemption and defiant joy despite disappointment, grief, loss and suffering.
Diane is the mother of a child with multiple disabilities including autism and ADHD. Since 2008, she has served as a special needs ministry consultant, partnering with Joni and Friends as a national speaker, trainer and ministry ambassador. Author of Unbroken Faith: Spiritual Recovery for the Special Needs Parent (Worthy, April 2018), her work has been featured in Christianity Today, Orange’s Parent Cue, Parenting Magazine, and Not Alone. Diane’s passion is to encourage weary parents and empower them to experience the timeless relevance of God’s Word applied to the gritty realities of special needs family life. She and her husband, Eddie, live in the heart of Silicon Valley with their two sons. Connect with her on Facebook or http://www.dianedokkokim.com/ where she blogs on being wrecked, redeemed and repurposed.
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is a Board Member with The Art of Autism and an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron on his website spectruminclusion.com or email Ron at Sandison456@hotmail.com.