This article was previously published by the Deseret News.
When Tahni Cullen saw what her 7-year-old son had typed on his iPad, she was absolutely stunned.
“I thought maybe I was on candid camera or I was losing it or something,” she recently told “The Church Boys” podcast.
The line of text that had her so flummoxed? “God is a good gift-giver.”
While possibly benign or unremarkable to some, it was a surreal milestone for Cullen, whose son, Josiah, has autism and is nonverbal. In fact, it was the first independent sentence he had ever written.
And that was only the beginning, as Cullen said that Josiah, who is now 10 years old, has typed a plethora of complex and deeply theological proclamations since; she believes many of these messages have been inspired by God.
Cullen took “The Church Boys” through her family’s harrowing experience navigating autism, explaining that Josiah was “a healthy, happy baby” after he was born in 2005, but eventually, something changed. Around 22 months, he began to regress, losing eye contact, speech and play skills.
What followed was a diagnosis and a concerted quest by Cullen and her husband, Joe, to try to help their son navigate uncharted territory.
“We had done everything we could, therapies and all sorts of things … to try and help him,” she said.
It was after Cullen saw a documentary about a woman who taught nonverbal children to communicate by pointing at letters that she decided to take Josiah to learn the same method in hopes that he, too, would be able to communicate.
Listen to Cullen discuss her experience on “The Church Boys” podcast at the 38-minute mark here.
“I had been having a lesson with him at the table,” she recalled, noting that she opened up a children’s Bible to a page about Jesus healing a blind man.
After explaining the story, she took out a piece of paper and wrote “heal” and “play,” before asking Josiah to point to the word that described Jesus’ actions. After he correctly pointed to “heal,” Cullen then asked him to spell the word.
“So, he puts his little finger down (on the iPad) and misses ‘H’ altogether and hits ‘G,'” Cullen recalled, saying that she at first thought he was simply confused about the spelling. “And then he continues to spell his first ever independent sentence, ‘God is a good gift giver,’ and I was absolutely shocked.”
She said Josiah went on to write, “God is very capable” — yet another moment that took her aback, considering that he had not been formally taught to read or write complex words or sentences.
Cullen then started asking a variety of questions, including information about Josiah’s personal likes and dislikes. Communication had never been a two-way street, leaving her with very little information about her son’s internal feelings.
“We really didn’t know what was going on in our son’s mind,” she said, saying that his sudden typing opened up a new window into Josiah’s mind. “Not only is it opening up the ability to get to know him, but as time progresses, his ability to explain himself is getting more and more complex.”
But it’s not just the communication itself that has stunned her; it’s also the depth of the theological proclamations that her young son continues to write.
Cullen said she’s been a life-long Christian who has prayed fervently for Josiah’s healing, but that his sudden and increasingly complex proclamations about God and the Bible have taken her by surprise.
She went on to cite some of the moments that convinced her that “something was going on that was definitely beyond the natural,” saying that Josiah’s comments began to morph into longer “beautiful, almost long Psalm or Proverb-like words.”
Cullen recalled one specific instance in which she asked Josiah to fill in the blanks on the following: “My favorite place in heaven is…” Here’s what she said the then-7-year-old wrote in response: “My favorite place in heaven is over peaceful waters. Peace is real. Tired souls naturally test peace. Roses are so stunning. Worship the king, sing loud to the prized pardon who requires praise. Angels tasted his holiness, ordained great attitude of praise. Help us worship the Lord together, Please him, all you hail the king of majesty forever. Make a noise to the king on the throne.”
It was yet another moment that left the mother, who is out with a new book about her experience titled “Josiah’s Fire: Autism Stole His Words, God Gave Him a Voice,” feeling as though something profound was happening.
In addition to not being taught to read or write in a traditional sense, Cullen has said her son also wasn’t exposed to “any mature theological insights” prior to writing such things.
“It is really a holy sense of awe that happens and, quite honestly, a lot of fighting your own logic,” she said. “This has pressed my own faith to the edges.”
A description for “Josiah’s Fire” adds that “Josiah’s eye-opening visions, heavenly encounters, and supernatural experiences forced his family out of their comfort zone and predictable theology, catapulting them into a mind-blowing love-encounter with Jesus.”
When asked how she might respond to critics who say she is making up the story, Cullen said it’s authentic and those who know her character and nature are well aware of the type of person she is.
“I wouldn’t expose myself, my family, my son, to this kind of vulnerability if I didn’t know that God was asking me to say ‘yes’ to this,” she said, adding that she firmly believes “Josiah seems to be tapping into (some) kind of a realm that many of us can’t see.”
Josiah was previously the subject of a documentary produced by Joe Cullen titled “Surprised By Autism.”
That marks the end of the article from the Deseret News. I want to add that every child is different. Every autistic child is different. But what I have learned is that God loves all of us, no matter what our challenges. It is beautiful to me that this little boy is able to share with his family, and the world, that he feels his Savior’s love. Just like you and I do. – Abbie Christiansen.
I want to add that every child is different. Every autistic child is different. But what I have learned is that God loves all of us, no matter what our challenges. It is beautiful to me that this little boy is able to share with his family, and the world, that he feels his Savior’s love. Just like you and I do. – Abby Christiansen.
Abby is capable and caring. She is learning more about Autism and parenthood every day. Having completed training to be an RBT (Registered Behavior Technician) for ABA therapy she is beginning to understand her son. And even though she is the first to admit she makes a lot of mistakes, she is so grateful to be on this journey. She comes from a family with many autistic members. She invites us to join her, as she shares her adventures. She wishes to emphasize that Autism is a difference not a defect. If you or a family member have autism, Abby wants you to know that the challenges can be overcome, and there are blessings in autism. You or your loved one are not sick or broken. Together we will teach the world this new language.