My son Scott was baptized on Saturday. A year ago I did not expect this to happen. Scott has autism, and although he has many good skills–mowing the lawn, making French toast, playing Joe Danger–his ability to understand abstract concepts and motivations is limited. At eight years old he still does not ask “Why?” questions, and he can’t answer them, either. He communicates mostly in rote phrases, which don’t necessarily indicate anything substantive about what he is trying to express. They are just the phrases he knows. You can usually tell by his tone of voice whether or not he means them literally or whether he is frustrated (about what is not always clear) or just feels like making conversation, and these are the words that are easiest for him to access. When he was seven, I thought that unless he made a huge developmental leap, there was no way we were going to have him baptized the next year. What would be the point? Even if he understood what he was doing, how would we know that? He wouldn’t be able to tell us.
My husband sought counsel from our bishop, who said, essentially, that the decision was up to us. I thought, “Shouldn’t it be up to Scott?” But did Scott even know what he wanted? How much awareness did he have that his peers were getting baptized? Did he care? This wasn’t like when his older siblings turned eight. His sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, was not developmentally on par with her peers socially, but she was capable of explaining what baptism was (at least on an eight-year-old level) and conveying her feelings about it. Although there aren’t many eight-year-olds out there deciding to get baptized without a heavy dose of religious indoctrination from their parents, the decision is technically supposed to be theirs. That’s the whole point of waiting until they’re eight, right? They may not be mature, but traditionally we believe that is when they become morally accountable. Except when they’re not.
There was no doubt in my mind that Scott, at this time, was not morally accountable–not in the same way a typical eight-year-old was. If he were baptized, my expectations regarding his capacity for moral reasoning would not change. He knew that hitting and spitting and screaming were naughty, and he knew he wasn’t supposed to do those things, but so does a four-year-old. Our older children were expected to fast after they were baptized. I couldn’t imagine expecting the same thing of Scott. Our older children were expected to do a lot of things because they were older and morally accountable. They were reminded of their baptismal covenants at church, and even if they were less than conscientious about keeping them, at least they understood that they’d made them.
Scott had made great strides in terms of reigning in his more extreme behaviors. He enjoyed going to church. He loved Primary. Although he didn’t really participate, he seemed fascinated by sharing time. In class, his teacher usually gave him a puzzle or some other activity to do while she gave the lesson; even if he was not engaged with the lesson, he was occupied and not disruptive. He enjoyed coloring pages and liked to do the same ones each week, the same way. Joseph Smith always had brown hair, blue eyes, and purple lips. He loved writing, so often she gave him sentences to copy, too. He was also the best reader in the class (although his comprehension was limited), so she’d ask him to read the scriptures as part of the lesson.
He loved Family Home Evening, even though he couldn’t sit still for the lesson; he was mainly interested in the singing and the treats. We started including him and his younger sister in our family scripture reading (previously we had just inflicted it on the older children), and lover of routine that he is, he has made sure that we read our scriptures every single night since. Because he loved to read, he eventually took an interest in singing the hymns in sacrament meeting–in monotone, but with enthusiasm. (I want to tell you that his rendition of “The Morning Breaks” brought tears to my eyes. I’ll just leave it at that.)
I didn’t worry about the eternal consequences of baptizing a child who wasn’t morally accountable. I don’t generally worry about the eternal consequences of baptizing any eight-year-old. Only God truly knows our capabilities and the condition of our hearts. I don’t worry that children don’t fully understand the implications of what they’re doing. Not even adults really understand what they’re getting into when they decide to be baptized. But the idea is that they’re consciously making a promise to God that they will follow Christ. I knew that Scott was picking up things in Primary. He knew who Jesus was–or at least he recognized his picture. How much he knew about Jesus was a mystery because he couldn’t tell us what he knew. So if he were to make a covenant to take Christ’s name upon himself, what would that mean for him, as far as he was concerned? Or as far as we were concerned? I didn’t like the idea of baptizing him just for the sake of it. Maybe it was a farce to baptize any eight-year-old, but at least with typical eight-year-olds you could pretend the choice was meaningful.
As Scott’s eighth birthday drew closer, however, it became apparent that Scott was expecting to be baptized, and that he was looking forward to it. Perhaps he’d been looking forward to it since he’d watched his older brother go under the water and, overcome with envy, made a beeline for the font and loudly demanded to join him. Scott was not afraid of water–a point in his favor. We didn’t have to worry that he’d be traumatized by the whole immersion thing. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized a few things that I hadn’t properly considered when I was so caught up with the philosophical and theological intricacies of the ordinance. I had no desire to separate Scott any further from his peers than he already was. I also had no desire to deprive him of the choice to get baptized, regardless of what motivated that decision. The bottom line was that I didn’t know what Scott knew or didn’t know. I did know that Scott knew what he wanted. It should be up to him.
In the weeks leading up to his baptism, we had Family Home Evening lessons on baptism and confirmation. He wasn’t any more interested in these than he was in other lessons, although he did enjoy the part where he practiced getting dunked by his dad. He went for his interview with the bishop, who asked him what he was going to do on April 9.
“Get baptized,” he said.
“And who’s going to do the baptism?” the bishop asked.
“But who’s going to baptize Scott?”
And it was done. On the morning of April 9 he started saying, “I’m getting baptized at 1 o’clock.” Over and over. He and his father went to the church ahead of us and changed into their baptismal clothes, at which point he was chomping at the bit to get in the font already. He anxiously awaited the 1 o’clock hour. We probably should have told him that it would be more like 1:15 or 1:20 because we had to sing a song and have a prayer and listen to his grandmother give a talk on baptism. It was difficult for him to wait, but he did all right. Except for occasionally shouting, “I need to get baptized at 1 o’clock!”
When the time finally came, he gave everyone a play-by-play. “I’m going in the water. I’m getting very wet.” His dad said the prayer. Scott went under the water. He came back up again with a huge smile on his face, shouting something like, “I did it!” My husband told me that when they got back in the dressing room, Scott said, “I got baptized. I feel happy.”
I realized even while I was worrying over the decision that at least some, if not most, of my angst over Scott being baptized was due to my conflicting emotions about his disability. I remember when he was diagnosed at age three. I went into the evaluation fully expecting to be told that I had another child with autism, and yet when I came out with the very diagnosis I was expecting, I realized that some sliver of me was unconsciously hoping to be told something different. He’d spoken his first words at thirteen months. Not long after that he was singing (some semblance of) “Popcorn Popping” and saying, “I love you.” By the time he was two, he had lost all but a handful of words and mostly communicated in grunts. I wanted to believe he was just regressing because I’d gotten pregnant again and had to wean him, and then there was a new baby. I didn’t want to believe it was something he wouldn’t grow out of.
Since then, despite the fact that my son has made wonderful, maybe even miraculous progress, and despite the fact that I have every reason to hope for his future, I realize that I have not consciously allowed myself to hope too much. I don’t want to relive the experience walking out of that evaluation with a perfect knowledge of how misguided my hope had been. Yet despite the official effort to keep my expectations low, I still had hope enough to fear that if I allowed my son to be baptized when he was developmentally incapable of understanding what he was doing, that would be admitting that he would never be able to come to the same understanding that his older siblings or his peers had. I know now that that isn’t true. I also know that even if baptism doesn’t mean the same thing to Scott that it does to the other eight-year-olds baptized that day, that doesn’t make his baptism less meaningful. Not to him, not to me. Not to God.