Many couples develop a desire to adopt, but for Hannah Singer and her husband, Patrick, the call was clear from the beginning. The couple married in 2006, and in 2008, a few short years later, their desire for a baby was fulfilled. Their son, Elijah, was adopted at three months. It wasn’t long after that Elijah began to show signs of autism.
Elijah, now 5 years old, has been a bright light in the Singer’s lives. There are many resources for caring for a child with autism, but what about assisting a couple who lovingly serve a child with a disability? I’ve asked Hannah to share their story—specifically how the Lord has used their son and his diagnosis in her marriage.
Would you share your journey into adoption?
Patrick and I both had hearts for adoption from the beginning, originally planning to add to our biological children. The Lord knew best, and after two ectopic pregnancies and learning we were unable to grow our family the “typical” way, we pursued adoption! We began many avenues domestically, including foster care. The Lord surprised us in the midst of our pursuit with an out-of-the-blue phone call from a young woman wondering if we “still want a baby”. That led to a private adoption with help from a lawyer friend and a beautiful young woman, Elijah's birth mama. We were there for his birth, so he has always been with us. Elijah was three months old when his adoption was finalized, making him an official Singer!
I understand Elijah was diagnosed with autism. Did you know he was diagnosed with autism at the time? If not, how did you discover it?
We didn't know about his autism. Looking back, especially at old videos, we see signs of autism in Elijah. We never noticed anything “different” until he was almost two years old. I think it was a combination of him bringing us so much joy and us being uneducated in the area of autism. Elijah was a super easy/calm baby. He could sleep anywhere, go anywhere, and nothing fazed him!
Somewhere along the way (around 8 months old?) he went from chill-out to jumping tornado, constantly moving and destroying things. It was like he couldn't be still, he couldn't rest. I know babies can be busy, chew on things and make messes, but this seemed different somehow. I just thought he was quirky and “normal”. He still wanted to be swaddled (and does to this day, ha!); the few words like apple, bath, mama, book, and go . . . went quiet.
He would hardly ever say words and often seemed like he didn't even know I was in the room with him. Things became clearer during a vacation we took just after his second birthday. We went to Disneyland. It was an awesome trip in some ways, but mostly it was just difficult and exhausting. Elijah screamed and kicked on the airplane. He wouldn't eat or sleep (for most of the trip!); we had no idea what he needed. We thought maybe he was getting sick, or was afraid of the airplane, or the hotel or something. He was overwhelmed and wound super tightly. Patrick and I were delirious and clueless.
After that trip I began to see things differently. I became more aware of Elijah's “quirks”. When he continued to seem aloof to us, we had his hearing checked. Perfect score. He wasn't speaking, which made for many frustrating times of the day and night. He stopped eating foods he used to like, he wasn't sleeping, he didn't seem to know what toys were for. He would just throw them around or walk on them all day. He jumped, climbed, ran, and chewed things relentlessly.
I didn't feel worried about him, but I definitely felt like I had no idea what I was doing as a mom. I felt I was failing him. For months, including during another insane, overwhelming vacation, I knew something was not typical. I had no idea where to begin with all the questions I had. I read a blog by a mother whose son was recently diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, and it really reminded me of what Elijah was like. So, I researched that a bit and made notes for the pediatrician. At an appointment late in October 2011, Elijah was observed for over an hour. We talked with the doctor, asking questions and answering them. She told us that she would make appointments for us to see more doctors as soon as possible. She believed that Elijah was autistic.
I was stunned because I was under the impression that autism meant no happiness, no affection and aggression. Elijah was a jolly, affectionate and tender boy.
How has the diagnosis affected your marriage?
I believe the autism diagnosis has absolutely affected our marriage and in so many ways. From day one, it brought us closer together. At first, because we both felt like total loser parents, here we were, trying to pound a square peg into a circle hole. We were trying discipline, routines—everything—as if Elijah was typical. When it wasn't working at all, we thought we were failures. It never crossed our minds that maybe he needed a completely different approach. We felt shame for not knowing about autism. We felt shame for him being close to three years old before we figured it out. That connected us, and in turn drove us to Jesus together for wisdom, comfort and strength. Learning about Elijah's autism was also relieving. It meant we weren't crazy and imagining his quirks. It meant we were not failures, just uneducated.
What steps have you taken to preserve your marriage while loving, serving, and caring for your son?
With Patrick's irregular work schedule, I often attend meetings and appointments for Elijah alone. It can sometimes feel like single parenting when I get all the info alone and deal with things on a daily basis. I’ve learned that it's important to make time to share with Patrick, no matter how tired I am, updating him on everything so he's included and can better make decisions.
Getting time together to just be is also important. We rarely have money to afford a sitter or go out, but we try to connect at home any chance we get. Honestly, this is a current struggle for us, overcoming exhaustion, praying together, having meaningful conversation and togetherness is something we're getting better at.
Are there any lessons you've learned about marriage and caring for children with special needs?
The truth is, I believe marriage is work, typical family or not. It's beautiful and good . . . and sanctifying. So far, we've learned that keeping short accounts of hurts or frustrations with each other, confessing, and forgiving immediately helps so much. There are pressures as a special needs family that cause stress, extreme anxiety, fear and sometimes anger. It's crucial that we cling to Christ together and that we're on the same team every day. Most days, we feel completely inadequate for the life the Lord has given us.
Here are some things we know matter and are working on daily:
- seeing Jesus above each other
- not expecting perfection
- striving to extend grace
- seeking ways to encourage each other
Our child is not the center of our world. Sometimes that's a fight, simply because he is a total joy and blessing to us, and most of our time is spent with him or working for what's best him. But, if my husband and I are not taking time to nurture ourselves as a couple, we can hardly care well for our son's needs. It's important for us to be one and to be in tune with each other.
What have been some of the joys, specifically in your marriage, since becoming parents?
I think a huge joy for me has been the way my husband accepts me. Earlier in our marriage, after two ectopic pregnancies, we learned we'd never have biological children. During that time, I first saw that my husband was 100 percent with me. Patrick grieves with me. He celebrates with me. He encourages me. He laughs with me. He stays.
Sharing the joy of being parents together is a joy in our marriage! We've changed a little since becoming parents and changed a little more since realizing how exceptional Elijah is. It's been a joy to see my husband grow into his fatherhood role. And Lord willing, we'll be adopting again!
What is your hope for your son and his future?
Wow. I hope everything for him. Our main prayer is that he would understand the gospel and know freedom in Jesus. We hope he will be understood and respected for who he is. We he hope he will continue to discover and sharpen his gifts, and share them through his work and friendships.
*The number of children diagnosed with autism each year is staggering and the cause is undetermined, but this we do know, each child is made in the image of God. May the Lord give us wisdom to serve parents in our congregations as they lovingly care for their child diagnosed with autism.