I’m a big fan of Catholic radio. Unfortunately, our local station does not carry most of my favorite programs, so I end up listening to archived podcasts. One of my favorites is Catholic Answers Live, produced by Catholic Answers, an evangelization and apologetics apostolate located in San Diego, CA. Catholic Answers Live is a call-in show with two one-hour segments every day, Monday through Friday.
A few weeks ago, Catholic Answers Live featured Dr. Ross Porter for an hour-long discussion about raising a handicapped child. Dr. Porter is a clinical psychologist specializing in integrative psychology and family systems. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Stillpoint Family Resources, a non-profit organization that offers counseling services to individuals, couples, and families in crisis, with nine different office locations throughout Los Angeles and Orange Counties, California. Dr. Porter and his wife have four children, the oldest of whom, John Michael, has Down Syndrome.
It was an interesting program, with the discussion touching upon many of the areas that Amy and I have talked about with respect to our own child with Down Syndrome.
The Porters had three more children after John Michael, and a fair number of people were surprised by that. Dr. Porter talked about feeling overwhelmed at times, but returning to the challenge of Pope John Paul the Great, “Be not afraid.” And so, they made a conscious effort to stay open to life and to the god of miracles. “A lot of people were surprised. Gosh, you’re gonna have another child? Well, why wouldn’t we want another child? This wasn’t a mistake, like John Michael didn’t go well so we better close up shop. He’s the baby that God intended for us, and why would we stop now?”
Raising a child with special needs is a challenge, but it is not one that comes without any rewards. You’re life might be rearranged, but you arrive at a new sense of normal.
One caller questioned whether, having received a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome, it would be appropriate to pray for healing. My wife has discussed something similar with other parents of children with Down Syndrome. If you could give back the extra chromosome, would you? Dr. Porter would not. “John Michael was sent to us exactly how John Michael was meant to be. If we had known while he was in utero that he was Down Syndrome, we would not have prayed for a healing because I really believe that (and my wife also) this is John Michael’s mission and that as long as John Michael has life, he will be leading people to God through his disability. That’s not to say that people are wrong if they pray for healing. The way that I feel about it is that you pray for God’s perfect will, and then the courage to do it. So if there’s going to be a miracle of healing where the Down Syndrome child is suddenly not Down Syndrome, fine. The deeper miracle is if we’re able to love and do God’s Will.”
Elaborating upon the rewards of raising a child with special needs, Dr. Porter noted that he is a better man because of John Michael. “All my children have helped me to grow and to be a better man, but no one has stretched me like John Michael has stretched me. And nobody challenges – none of us, including my wife and I – challenge people like John Michael does. There’s something very powerful and compelling about him, and as I’ve said before, Patrick, that you talk about a disable child – John Michael is happier in any given week than I’ve been in 45 years. He doesn’t have the neuroses, the hangups, the anxieties, the fears that I have with my degrees and my knowledge and blah blah blah. So what he really challenges us to do is almost redefine disability. He wears his disability on the outside. We’re all disabled, we’re just better at hiding ours. The more resources and the more education you have, the better able you are to hide it. He’s a great grace. I would never pray that he would be anybody but the person that God made him to be.
The phrase the Dr. Porter especially likes to use with regard to his son is that he is “elegantly simple.”
Dr. Porter also touched upon the challenges of parenting his elegantly simple son compared to his three typical children. “We’ve got four children. John Michael has his particular challenges that he brings to the table, but he is going to be, in a lot of way, our easiest kid. We’re never going to have to worry about him out late at night. We’re never going to have to worry about him in moral areas. He’s got this gift of simplicity that will always keep him a little child. All children are going to have their challenges. All of us, as we get older, it’s not like we have less challenge or less temptation in our lives. That’s just part of being human, is dealing with the challenges that come with humanity.”
The full hour with Dr. Porter is available from the Catholic Answers radio calendar. The Rosses have written a book, Hidden Graces, which can be ordered from Dr. Porter’s web site. “Ross and Jenni Porter offer a personal and uplifting book of reflections on the lessons God has taught them through their very special boy John Michael, who has Down Syndrome. This book is not only applicable to parents, siblings, and friends of special needs people, it is a work that will inspire anyone interested in a deeper life of faith, hope, and love. ‘We believe in the relevancy of this book because it is ultimately a story about God's love, and God's love includes everyone whether they have a special needs child or not.’”