There are stories with the power to change your perspective on things you’ve been dealing with for a very long time. Stories that can give you a newfound sense of purpose and hope. That can help you re-calibrate and re-prioritize.
For most parents of children in the Autism spectrum, this (I think) can be one of those stories.
Timothy and Iracema Kunkel were told to “bury the expectation of ever having a perfect son.”
Their third child, Steven Andrew, was diagnosed with a moderate-to-severe form of Autism at age 4. At the time they were serving as Christian missionaries in the small rural town of Salto, Uruguay in 1993.
In spite of their son’s diagnosis, the Kunkels decided to continue serving in Salto, a city located 6 hours from the Uruguayan capital, instead of returning to the United States where there were (apparently) significantly more resources to treat Steven.
When asked about their decision to continue their work in Salto, Mrs. Kunkel simply replied, “God sent us to Uruguay before we had Steven. We were a family of 5 so we understood that Steven was only 20% of our family so to make a decision based on 20% did not make sense. We then heard these words from a great pediatrician: ‘Autistic people can flourish anywhere if you love them and if the marriage stays together’, so we decided to stay.”
The Kunkels’ is an epic awe-inspiring story of relentless faith, trust, love, courage and (to us, living in the internet era with—seemingly—endless treatment alternatives) of an amazing simplicity and ingenuity.
It’s the story of a 4-year old boy who was once characterized by his “marked lack of awareness of others” and as someone that would not be “likely to absorb much from a (traditional) educational setting” (quotes from his original diagnosis documents) who went on to become a Summa Cum Laude student graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biblical, Theological and Global studies with a minor in Business and with a special distinction in Missions and Evangelism. Steven received his Bachelor’s degree and honor from Boyce College with an outstanding GPA of 3.94 twenty-five years after his initial diagnosis, in the summer of 2018.
It’s the story of a boy that after extensive testing at a major medical center and hospital in the United States was diagnosed as someone “definitely” on the Autism spectrum (PDD Scale) showing 9 of the 16 criteria with a CARS (Childhood Autism Rating Scale) score of 40 at age 4, unable to utter a single word at that time who went on to speak 4 languages (English, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese), who passed 4 out of 5 Japanese Language Proficiency tests administered by the Japan Foundation and the Japan Educational Exchanges and Services, and who is actively learning 7 more languages: Arabic, Mandarin, Farsi, Turkish, French, Hebrew, and Greek.
It’s the story of Steven Andrew Kunkel, a straightforward 29 year-old who oozes humility, who has a child-like passion toward evangelism, that describes as his life’s greatest passion “to become a faithful soldier and warrior for the Lord”, and that bursts with a joyous expression of excitement every time he sees fit… Sugoi!!! (i.e. Japanese for Amazing!!!)
It’s also the story of a mother who never gave up on her special needs child and that did everything she could to empower her son in a faraway place with limited resources.
“We didn’t have cable TV or internet at home for the first ten years of Steven’s life. After that time, we had it only in limited ways (dial up), and basic TV channels. Steven’s paternal grandmother in the USA recorded educational videos (e.g. Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, etc.) on VHS cassettes and shipped those over to us in Uruguay so Steven and his brother, John Glenn, could watch them at home. He also played Nintendo video games which helped him with his fine motor skills and taught him to have goals and finish his tasks. For his gross motor skills he did gymnastics and sports”, said Mrs. Kunkel.
In a day and age where many Autism parents spend countless hours doing internet searches, reading scientific literature and exchanging information with (literally) thousands of fellow ASD-parents on Facebook groups desperately looking for a silver bullet that can (hopefully) cure their childrens’ condition, Mrs. Kunkel’s story reminds us that the most important piece of the (so called) “Autism puzzle” is not a treatment, a therapy, or a combination of supplements.
It is us, the parents.
It is what we do for (and with) them. It’s the time we spend helping and pushing them to increase their level of awareness of the world around them, the time we spend observing what they do, seeking for those information “nuggets” that may reveal to us new interests we can explore to open up their perspective. When asked Steven what had helped him most in his early years he replied, “My mom. She was always with me.”
In spite of all her wonderful work with Steven, when asked about her “secret recipe” to raise such an incredible son, Mrs. Kunkel’s detailed response began with a phrase unlike anything my wife and I had expected to hear,
“Invest in your marriage. Love your partner and stay together. We were told that 75% of couples with children on the spectrum got divorced. My husband and I made it a priority to spend time together whenever we were able to do so. We spent one weekend together away from home, most months every year, investing in our relationship and recharging. We also took vacations, as a couple, and as a family, individually, every year. We left our three kids in the care of a wonderful nanny that God provided for us. She is a Uruguayan national and to this day is like an adoptive auntie to our kids. She still, 25 years later, keeps in close touch with us.”
Mrs. Kunkel’s “protocol” began with the simple realization that nobody would be her son’s champion or care for him as much as she would, so she decided to get 100% in charge. She became Steven’s main advocate as Tim did the same for their other two Kunkel children, John Glenn and Julia.
It also began with finding lasting joy and contentment in her marital relationship, trusting God’s perfect plans for her family in spite of the pain and suffering they were going through in their against-all-odds struggle with Autism, “God does not make junk. In God’s eyes these kids are jewels”, said Mrs. Kunkel.
“I attended several conferences and training sessions in the USA and Canada to help Steven. It was based on this training that I taught Steven at home and instructed the speech therapist we had with the method called, ‘Facilitated Communication, PEC and Me book.’ Steven had some type of OT that was called ‘psychomotricity’ there in Salto. We also hired a young lady to help Steven, she actually went to Steven’s elementary school every day, spent a couple of hours with him at school and she also helped him with his homework after school. It is also very important for kids in the spectrum to have an educational and social circle so I invited the kids in the neighborhood (neuro-typical) to our home to play with Steven. They played parallel. This helped him a lot!”, said Mrs. Kunkel.
Steven completed elementary school at age 12 and he was homeschooled from middle school to high school, which he finished at age 19. He obtained his bachelor’s degree at age 29.
Between the ages of 15 to 29 he studied Japanese, lived in Japan for two years as a ministerial intern, and then he finished college. Steven is now working on his MA degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville KY, USA.
Mrs. Kunkel believed in the importance of benefiting from the (limited) sets of interests that children in the Autism spectrum tend to have at any given time, to observe what they’re watching at all times, and to foster their relationship with God,
“Children in the spectrum tend to have a limited set of interests that varies from time to time. Try to benefit from the interests they have and push them in whatever activity they’re interested in. Those interests WILL change or go away. However, anything they learn during those times while they’re still interested WILL remain with them long term. It is also very important to always observe what they’re watching. It seemed difficult for Steven to develop a personality of his own in his early years so he had a tendency to “borrow” his personality from video games, the things he watched, or from his peers so it’s important to observe what they’re watching. […] Children on the spectrum can have a very personal relationship with God. Teach them to pray and to read the Bible by themselves. That’s how they’ll develop their own relationship with God.”
Diet and Supplements
Growing up, Steven only took two supplements, Omega 3 and Vitamin B6. He was never medicated, even though that was what a couple doctors recommended.
He also avoided eating sugary products and high-carb foods such as pizzas, bread, or starchy foods.
To this day, Steven still avoids these foods as they may trigger changes in his behavior causing him stress and anxiety, which may affect his concentration and focus. As Steven himself points out, according to scientific research, the food you eat is either medicine or poison so he is particularly wary of the types of food that can make his Autism symptoms worse, such as, dairy, gluten, sugar and artificial ingredients.
“Sometimes these foods are inescapable in social gatherings so I do eat these occasionally, in moderation. However, I’ve never spent my money buying pizzas or sugary products for the sake of my health and my Autism triggers”, said Steven.
Needless to say, Steven never received stem-cell therapy, chelation, hyperbaric oxygen, or any other form of special biomedical treatment.
Steven’s Missionary Work
Steven has devoted his life to become a Gospel “infusionist”, namely, a full-time missionary seeking to equip churches to be more Biblically-centered, apologetic, evangelistic, and discerning of sound Biblical doctrine.
“With God’s help, I want to lead people to faith in Christ so that they will be saved from deception and condemnation”, said Steven.
Steven’s faith, conviction and determination to become a full-time missionary are far from being “pie in the sky.”
Through family connections, Steven met a Chinese Filipino man who mentored Steven throughout the process of improving his skills and trained him to overcome the necessary cultural barriers to reach out to the Japanese people with the Gospel.
It was through this mentor that Steven got in touch with JTG (Jesus the Gospel International), a nondenominational church in the Japanese prefecture of Nagano, where Steven was invited to work from 2012 to 2014.
At JTG, Steven helped translating sermons, doing evangelism, music leadership (playing the piano and guitar), among various other ministerial duties.
It was because of his vision, dedication, missionary background, and impressive academic credentials that Steven was recently approved to serve as a full-time IMB (International Mission Board), Southern Baptist Convention (USA) missionary to Japan, where he is expected to begin serving on an IMB-SBC team in Osaka, Japan later this year (2018).
Q&A with Steven
Q: Was there a specific moment in your life that “forced” you to have a grasp on the things that happened around you, understand responsibilities, commitments and deadlines?
Steven: Yes, my moment of “breakthrough” took place when I was in Japan at JTG. I was not with my mentors, or my parents, and had just started my work there. I started to adapt and live on my own while living with people I never knew or mingled with. I still spoke regularly with my dad, my former pastor and mentors via Skype; they always helped me discern and think things through whenever I faced trials or situations where I felt I needed help. But still, I was on my own making my own decisions. It was during that time where I could no longer make up excuses to say, “That’s not up to me.” Being alone forced me to be responsible for my actions. That period of breakthrough helped me to realize that I could actually be independent and become a full-time missionary in a country where English is not spoken, knowing God is always with me.
Q: In what ways would you say your Autism has helped you to “stand out” either because of your talents or because of the way you “see” things?
Steven: I would say that my Autism “helped” me become very focused and enjoy my studies to the point of seeing them as “hobbies.” My Autism helps me to stay focused in one or two things at a time. I would also say that my Autism helps me to stand out because of my talents, but also primarily because of the way I “see things” that are rather complex, and it has also helped me grow in my character with God.
Q. At what age would you say you started interacting with peers in a “typical” way?
Steven: I would say at 16, I started to work out on my social skills without the help of my parents but in a “typical” way. I was able to know and understand how to interact and learn about areas I had in common with other people and use those to connect with them. For example, if I liked “anime” or “manga” or “games,” I could get into groups of people who liked those things, and it was through those interactions that I realized that just because other people had the same interests I had, didn’t mean that we were likely to become friends.
Q. Do you remember the first time someone told you about the “Autism” condition you had? How did that make you feel? What kinds of things were critical for you to navigate life once you knew you had Autism?
Steven: When I heard the condition of Autism for the first time I did not know what it really was. I studied with my mom and as she taught me about Autism, I realized that Autism is what made me different from my other peers. I felt discouraged at first because of the limitations people with Autism may have. The things that were critical for me to navigate a life with my Autism was that I was treated differently from my peers and that I was taught (or told) that I would never be successful or independent or would have a career or a ministry. However, those criticisms only helped me to become more and more determined in my work for the Lord and to excel in all of the areas I had difficulty with, one at a time. Those difficulties have only helped me develop in the areas God wants me to do for His Glory.
Q. How did you become interested in languages?
Steven: I got interested in languages and cultures since I was living overseas with my parents as missionaries. I got infatuated with languages since I studied about the similarity of Portuguese and Spanish, for example. Later on, as I learned Arabic, I also saw some of the similar connections there were with Hebrew and Persian (Farsi), which I found fascinating.
Q: When did you become aware of the dangers of your surroundings?
Steven: I was always aware of the dangers of my surroundings. At the age of 3, I was taught by my parents to always observe the street, both ways, before crossing. They also taught me to be discerning and to guard my heart against people who could trick me. As I grew older, I started to develop those skills, especially when I was in Japan.
Q. Do you have a girlfriend? Would you like to get married? Have kids?
Steven: I used to plan to marry and was actually interested in possibly marrying a Japanese spouse. I remember studying Japanese so that I could (one day) go to Japan and marry a Japanese. However, while I was working with the Filipino church in Japan (JTG), I realized that God had called me to Japan and, for that reason, I decided to live as a celibate missionary for God. Jesus taught about the fact that some men may choose to remain celibate for the sake of God’s Kingdom. In the mission field, there are certain opportunities celibate people have which married people don’t have. Just like Jesus and Paul were both celibate during their ministries, I have decided to remain celibate in my work for God.
Q. What are some things you love? What would you say is your greatest passion?
Steven: One of the things I love, other than evangelizing and reading apologetics books and languages is that I love to draw cartoons, make music and play sports like fencing, squash, and swimming. The greatest passion in my life I can say is to become a faithful soldier and warrior for the Lord as I could help to save souls from the evil one. With God’s help, I want to lead people to faith in Christ so that they will be saved from deception and condemnation.
Although Steven’s case may not be representative of every ASD child, the Kunkels’ story is a living testimony to the tremendous difference that faith can make in the lives of parents and ASD children alike.
Whatever it is that we (as parents) believe about our current situation will determine our perspective, our aim, our goal and our mission. That’s the importance of what we believe. That is what faith does.
Trusting God can help us overcome the incessant surges of discouragement and pain of an unfriendly world that pretends to determine what our children can or cannot do based on a diagnosis.
It is faith that can radically change our perspective to find lasting joy in the midst of our struggles to be able to empower our children develop their God-given talents to their best of their abilities. It is faith that has the power to transform our children’s condition from a senseless pain and suffering into trials with a beautiful perfect plan designed by an ultra-loving God for our good. There’s a purpose, a reason, and a mission that is no longer ours, but His.
From God’s perspective, Steven Andrew (and every special needs person for that matter) is perfect in His eyes. Steven was perfect long before he received any awards, degrees, and long before he was able to utter a single word. He was “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139) long before he was able to play a single piano key or could multitask the way he does it today. Steven’s value is in no way linked to anything he does but to God’s perfect love for him displayed on the cross of His Son. It is God’s love that has given Steven both a passion and a mission, one that by His grace he is eager to execute as he continues to be led by his Heavenly Father that loves him (not in spite of) but because of who he is… It was God’s love that made the miracle, and it is His love that has the power to make all kinds of miracles as it is by His love that He declares this faithful warrior of His, indeed, Sugoi!!!
I am deeply thankful to Mr. and Mrs. Kunkel and to Steven for letting me write about their family story, for generously providing helpful comments and quotes, for proofreading the preliminary draft for accuracy, and for facilitating all the pictures used in this article.