Nathanlene Lee talks faith, persistence and raising a son with autism
With the power of faith on her side, Nathanlene Lee has defied the doctor’s expectations of her son’s autism diagnosis.
Nathanlene Lee, who works in Building Services in Lee University’s Physical Plant, discovered that her son Michael had autism when he was 18 months old. He did not receive an actual diagnosis, however, until he was two years old.
Lee said she was not surprised when he was diagnosed. What really shocked her, instead, was what the doctor told her it would mean for both of their lives. He said Michael would never be able to walk, talk or know Lee as his mother.
However, she persisted.
“I was adamant. My son was going to do all the things the doctor had told me he wasn’t going to do. And he does,” Lee said.
Lee said she thanks the grace of God for the progress she and her son have made throughout the years.
“I was fighting and trying to get through it all, but really, God was in the mix. There are no books that told me to do some of the things I did [to help Michael],” Lee said. “Everything I did, I didn’t do myself. It was the grace of God that did it.”
Debby Samuels, a family friend, said the hallmark of the Lee family is their deep faith in God.
“Nathanlene has very strong persistence and incredibly deep faith,” Samuels said. “When it comes down to it, with everything regarding Michael and regarding life for them as a family, she really just turns to God, and that’s her biggest strength.”
In light of her faith in God and in her son, Lee said she treats Michael like an adult and does not believe that autism defines him.
“I’ve heard so many people over the years say, ‘Well, bless his heart. He has autism.’ Well, I’m not raising that. I’m raising a child. He has autism, but he is not stupid,” Lee said. “I’m so hesitant with saying ‘he can’ or ‘he can’t’ because then I’m speaking it over his life, and I don’t want to do that.”
Samuels said that Lee’s choice to bring her son to campus has had positive results.
“The result of Nathanlene treating him as a 23-year-old and creating experiences for him to be around his peers is him adopting behaviors and language that reflect what other adults his age do and say,” Samuels said. “It’s in subtle things, but he’s more reflective of his same-age peers than he would be if he was just in a group home or a sheltered workshop where he’d only be around other people who are also developmentally delayed.”
Michael spends a chunk of his week on Lee’s campus, where he can interact with peers his own age and visit one of his workers, Julianne Clina.
The senior health science major writes out Michael's daily schedule on the three days she works with him. She fills it with activities such as rec center visits, an allotted time for school work and piano lessons.
Clina said, having never done this kind of work before, she has learned a lot about disabilities and interacting with others from watching Lee interact with her son.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from seeing Nathanlene interact with Michael is that she treats him like a 23-year-old despite him having autism, which is such a big thing because so many workers I’ve seen treat him like he’s five,” Clina said. “She also loves him, and that’s so evident. And she knows his personality.”
Lee said the university has a community that fosters Michael’s growth, which is why she brings him to campus.
“The Lee community has been great for Michael. He’s with his same-age peers, and it’s a safe environment. I do not have to worry about him on this campus,” Lee said. “Everybody—there may have been one or two people who don’t understand—has been so accepting of Michael. He loves it here, and that’s something he came to on his own.”
Julianne Clina said that she, along with her friends, has enjoyed having Lee’s son on campus. Her friends usually text her to ask to meet up with Michael.
“I went into this never having worked with someone with autism before, so I didn’t know if I’d be good or terrible, but he is my friend,” Clina said. “I love seeing him every day and hanging out with him because it’s just fun.”
Clina said it is important to her and Lee that people recognize Michael as capable.
“The faith that Nathanlene has in [Michael] to grow is really inspiring, and when she comes back and tells me stories like, ‘Oh, he used his words so good at the store’ or something like that, it just demonstrates that he can do this. He can grow, and he can learn,” Clina said. “I think [Nathanlene’s] ability to recognize the small things and find joy in the small things helps everyone else realize that Michael is very capable.”