Autism: Teagan’s Story of Hope

Nearly three years ago, shortly after their tenth anniversary, Kimber and Matt traveled to China on a much anticipated trip to adopt their two children, Teagan and Bennett, now six and five years old. Their family’s adventure has been filled with difficulty, love, and hope, and it is an honor to share a glimpse into their journey. 

One of the first questions I asked Kimber and Matt when we sat down to talk about their story was, “What about Teagan makes your parent heart swell?” I love Kimber’s response:

“That’s easy to answer. As much as she’s been through, she is sweet and interested in others. While she struggles with consistent eye contact and used to push us away, she’s gotten to the point now where she cuddles with us. It took two years to get to that point, but you’ll say, ‘Do you want a kiss, Teagan?’ and she’ll lean her cheek down. She’ll reach out now and touch our son’s hair. She’s a very sweet, very smart girl.”

Matt added, “Everything Kimber said is true, but a casual observer may not pick up on those things very quickly. It takes some time to learn the nuances of her personality.”

In their early days with Teagan, Matt and Kimber had moments of genuine struggle as they realized how great her needs actually were. Kimber remembers:

“We were told Teagan had a cataract which six grueling eye exams finally revealed she did not. The day we met Teagan, she cried a lot, which is not unusual, but we were surprised to learn that at age three, she was not walking or talking. As we tried to hold her to drive around her province in China doing paperwork, she popped my arm out of joint trying so hard to get away from me and not be in my arms. Later her orphanage shared that since she did not like to be held, they often left her on the floor. Teagan had bruises under her arms the first week she was with us because her skin was so tender as no one had picked her up.

When reality differs from our expectations, we try to remember our goal was never to have 2.5 kids and a white picket fence and a cat and a dog with an easy, predictable life based on what we wanted. Our dream is to have a life glorifying God, completely dependent on Him. While it may be more challenging, it will be richer and purposeful. I also remember praying and trusting God in each step of the adoption process way back as we were matched with our kids. While our daughter’s needs were different than we expected, we decided that day to continue to trust God that she was the amazing little girl that we’d been praying for and He’d give us what we’d need to love and serve her.”

And that is what they have been doing ever since. Months after arriving back in the States and visiting many specialists, Teagan was diagnosed with autism, a complex disorder of brain development that has varying degrees of impact on social and behavioral development. For Teagan, autism translates to a limited ability to communicate outside of a few basic sign language signs, regressions that can result in her not eating, drinking, using the bathroom, or walking, and, at times, self-injury behaviors.

Contending for Hope: Daily Life with Autism

Today, life for their family includes occupational therapy, speech therapy, and horseback riding therapy for Teagan each week. She is in a special needs kindergarten class and has a personal one-on-one assistant. Each therapy, when paired with the love she receives from her parents, has played a role in helping Teagan express just another layer of her sweet nature. As Matt described their interaction with Teagan, his affection for her was unmistakable. “I play with her, and I tickle her to get a response out of her. Over time, we’ll have an 'aha' moment where she’ll do something that I may have convinced myself she’ll never do in her whole life.”

Transitions are often difficult for Teagan, which can lead to a lot of crying. Explaining “first this, then this” to describe a new schedule helps manage Teagan’s expectations. She’s feeding herself right now and will soon be admitted to a 2 week intensive toilet training program at the Marcus Autism Center, which has a greater than 90% success rate. At school Teagan does have to wear a helmet for occasional head banging. Fortunately this is less and less frequent.

Kimber also lovingly described how she and Matt make choices about where and what their family does. “We are selective about the places we visit to eat, play, and have fun. We don’t feel like we have to give up a lot; it’s just different.”

When asked what someone can do for a friend who is feeling isolated or alone in the midst of medical adversity, Kimber reflected, “I think something encouraging would be just to go be with them at their house. Still do a play date and don’t feel weird by it. Treat them just like you would any other friend. Just have normal conversation. Enjoy yourselves. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they have so much going on, and I’m going to give them a lot of space.’ It was really encouraging to have those touch points with friends each week.”

Matt agreed, “You come across people, and they’ll say things like, ‘How are things going?’ My inclination is just to say, ‘Good,’ no matter what the circumstance because I don’t feel like they’re genuinely asking the question. But occasionally someone would really ask, and I wish there was more of that. Somebody said, ‘No, really tell me. I’ve never been through that, but I want to understand it and appreciate it a little bit more.’ And for me, being able to talk openly about that was a huge relief.”

As for the less than helpful feedback that comes with any situation that people are unfamiliar with, my favorite piece of advice from Kimber was this: “If you hear someone’s child may have autism, don’t ask them, ‘Have you tried the gluten-free diet?’ Yeah, don’t.” :)

Looking Ahead: A Solid Hope

Humor aside, the selfless love of Kimber and Matt is firmly rooted in hope. Matt described it this way: “Teagan caused me to realize I won’t see her full potential until we’re in heaven, and I won’t realize my potential either. Or Kimber’s. Or Bennett’s. And that’s hope. It’s a more meaningful hope because it’s not hope in whatever the tangible achievements of this lifetime may or may not be. It’s something much more profound and better.”

For Kimber, hope is faith “that it’s God’s story and it’s better than one I could imagine.”

I heard Amy O’Dell speak recently at Jacob’s Ladder, her school for children with neurological disabilities, about what hope and love in action looks like. What she said stuck with me: “Persevering through difficulty means rejoicing in small moments, and all of the small victories and moments add up to a life transformed.” In those moments when Teagan reaches out to touch her brother or lean in for a kiss, Kimber and Matt celebrate. Teagan’s growing expression of love and gentleness to those in her family makes her not only a recipient of their grace, but a model of grace in life, regardless of the circumstance — or diagnosis.

If you would like to learn more about day-to-day life with an autistic child or the process of adoption (including their current adoption process with India), or watch a few funny videos, you can check out their website here.