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Spencer's shadow: How listening to a 13-year-old deacons quorum president helped this father with his autistic son

Editor’s note: This story was written in September 2017 by Jacob Evans of the Saugus Ward, Santa Clarita California Stake. In October 2017, Katie Evans, Jacob’s wife, was killed in a car crash and the article was left unpublished out of respect for the family. It is published now with the approval of the Evans family and in correspondence with an article about the family and how they are doing now, a year after losing their wife and mother.

While other parents dream of their sons growing up to become astronauts, brain surgeons, or president, I dream of my son having a normal life. My son, Spencer, was diagnosed with autism at age 3. My wife, Katie, and I immediately had a thousand questions. Will he ever be able to get a job? Will he ever be able to live on his own? Will any girl see past his challenges to consider marrying him? We still have those questions, but we've learned to focus on more immediate questions.

When Spencer was 7 years old my bishop asked if Spencer understood the gospel well enough to be baptized. The truth was that I had been wrestling with that question for years and still wasn't sure. We decided to wait and revisit the matter later. A few months after Spencer turned 8 we spoke again and I was still unsure, but in that moment I felt the Spirit breathe hope into my soul and answered "yes."

Over the past few years it has become clear we made the right choice. Today Spencer definitely strives to keep his baptismal covenants, but in a Spencer way. He still struggles with the concepts of personal space and appropriate behavior, but his insistence on hugging everyone has been greatly appreciated by more than one widow in the ward and our choir director loves that he can't refrain from clapping when the choir sings especially well in sacrament meeting.

When Spencer was 11 years old we moved to California. Our new ward was still just getting to know Spencer as his 12th birthday approached. I honestly didn't know how he could pass the sacrament. I could easily imagine Spencer getting confused or simply losing interest in the middle of passing the sacrament. I imagined him throwing the sacrament tray or running out of the chapel ... or both.

Spencer Evans with his mom Katie Evans on his baptismal day.
Spencer Evans with his mom Katie Evans on his baptismal day. Photo: Courtesy Jacob Evans

As I struggled with how Spencer could learn and perform priesthood duties I asked several people for advice. My sister mentioned that they had an autistic boy in her ward who had learned to pass the sacrament with the deacons quorum president shadowing him as he passed for several months. My heart soared as I thought of this autistic boy not only doing his duty but strengthening relationships with others in the quorum as they helped him.

When my bishop asked if I felt Spencer was ready to be ordained a deacon I told him that I felt he was, as long as he had appropriate help. Bishop Adams agreed and then asked me to speak with the deacons quorum president.

After Spencer was ordained, I sat down with the deacons quorum president and the deacons quorum advisers. I was impressed that the 13-year-old president took the lead in the conversation. He told me that Spencer needed to be to church 20 minutes early the next week so that he could learn how to pass the sacrament. Then he asked me if I would be willing to shadow Spencer as he passed the sacrament until he could do it himself.

The request surprised me. I thought, "No! You or someone from the quorum should do it so he can build relationships with his peers." Fortunately, I quickly squelched my disappointment as I remembered that this president held the keys for his quorum. I nodded to show my consent. I could certainly shadow Spencer.

That next Sunday my heart sank as I recognized the stake president on the stand. I wasn't sure what was going to happen, but I was pretty sure I didn't want the stake president to see it.

Sure enough Spencer did not remember his instructions well, and I had to keep my hands on his shoulders constantly to help direct him. Then things got harder. On his third row, Spencer sat down in the middle of the aisle and declared that he was too tired to move. I pulled him up and encouraged him to finish.

One of the kind members, recognizing how hard this was for him, quietly thanked Spencer as he took the tray. Spencer responded with an enthusiastic, "You're welcome!"

There were other hiccups and, in short, it was the least reverent sacrament passing I had ever witnessed, but Spencer had completed his priesthood duty instead of quitting and I was extremely grateful for that.

“Most of all I am grateful that, in a crucial moment, I had the humility to do as an inspired 13-year-old president asked.”

Afterwards the members were more supportive and encouraging than I could have imagined. Many of them, including the stake president, went out of their way to say how much they enjoyed watching Spencer.

Apparently, one member had cried as she watched Spencer pass because of a 7-year-old autistic nephew she worried would never be able to participate fully in the Church. Seeing Spencer pass the sacrament brought her a renewal of hope as she reconsidered the possibilities of what her nephew could do.

Overall, every member of the ward, including Spencer, seemed to have been uplifted by Spencer's first week passing the sacrament.

Other weeks have brought other challenges. Each time he loses focus I quietly whisper in his ear or place my hands on his shoulders to gently direct him back to his duty, and he gets back on track.

In the months Spencer has been passing the sacrament he has made slow but steady progress, but I don't think any of the deacons could have successfully dealt with all the challenges they would have faced as Spencer's shadow.

I am thankful for a ward that is full of kindness and a deacons quorum president who was inspired. But most of all I am grateful that, in a crucial moment, I had the humility to do as an inspired 13-year-old president asked.

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