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Jennifer and Bradley Towler
Photo by Sophia Lee
Jennifer and Bradley Towler

‘God is so good to me’

Living with Autism | Jennifer Towler relies on God’s grace for healing as she ministers to her autistic son

This is the first installment of our new reality show about Jennifer Towler, 38, and her adult son Bradley, who has autism. Jennifer has a seemingly impossible vision for her son: She prays he’ll be an evangelist sharing the gospel to the disabled. We’ll chronicle the challenges of raising and ministering to someone with autism, the happenings in the Towlers’ home, and the joy and endurance found in God’s faithful promises. 

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif.—Bradley Towler has grey-blue eyes flecked with green. The greens shine when he leans in to gently tap his forehead into yours and kiss it. But when he’s acting up, his eyes darken into smokes of frustration and anger. His soft, teddy bear body becomes a rigid brick. 

“He’s in torment,” his mother Jennifer says. She grabs Bradley by the shoulders and tries to make him look into her eyes, but with his 6-foot-1-inch, 240-pound frame, she has to grunt and wrestle just to turn his head toward her.

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The first morning I visited Bradley, he had one of his worst episodes in months. I tried to read his eyes, but he had them scrunched and hardened, as though trying to focus very, very hard. He clenched and rocked his body, then over and over, arched his back and shrieked— “Ah! Ark! Ark!”—while the three dogs in the house barked in response. He froze one hand into twisted fingers, flapped and pointed the other. He trembled. Popped. Rocked. Popped again. Up and down he went on the sofa, sending musty puffs into the air. And then with one final screech, Bradley leapt up and charged howling into his room. 

He runs into his room to punish himself because he knows he’s misbehaving, I later learned. He doesn’t want to act that way, but he cannot control his actions. Being confined to his room is his least favorite discipline.

During Bradley’s episode, his grandmother Alexis, a delicate, silver-haired woman in tennis shoes, gripped her little dog on her lap. “It hurts me,” she murmured, her eyes squeezed shut, her thin-skinned hands petting down the dog’s bristling fur. “It hurts me to see him hurting so much.”

Bradley has autism spectrum disorder. He is at the cusp of adulthood—no longer a child at 18, but still very child-like developmentally. He’s a head taller than his mother, but he’s still barely potty-trained. If Jennifer doesn’t wake up in the middle of every night to escort him to the bathroom, he wets his bed. 

Jennifer has tried every method she can think of to train him to wipe himself, even using peanut butter because it has a “similar texture to his bowels,” she told me. But he still somehow “explodes all over the place.” Many mornings, Jennifer is on her knees cleaning up his excrement or washing his sheets. I asked her if she ever got used to it, and she burst out laughing: “No way, never. You never get used to something like this. I’m his mother and I love him to death, but not this.”

Jennifer is a never-married, single mother living with her father, Frank, in the same house where she grew up in Los Alamitos, Calif. Her parents are divorced, but both her mother and brother crash at the house from time to time when their latest relationships are in chaos. 

It sometimes seems like a madhouse in the Towlers’ home. The floors are furry with coats of dust and dog hair, and the air is thick with the clashing odors of mildew, McNuggets, and dogs. Visitors frequently walk in and out of the house. The television blares, the dogs yip, and Bradley screams. Yet Jennifer sits in the middle of the chaos, and says with glittering eyes, “God is so good to me.” 

Jennifer met Bradley’s father at a nightclub when she was 18. They dated for about two years, and when Jennifer became pregnant at 20, they discussed marriage. But then she caught him cheating— twice. Jennifer let the man go but kept the baby. His father doesn’t want anything to do with Bradley. He stopped paying child support two years ago.

Bradley was a “rough-and-tumble” boy, beautiful and lovable with dark curls, ocean-blue eyes, and quick intelligence. By the time he turned 1, he could gurgle at least 20 words: mama, baba, ball, dog, duck. He was strong and affectionate with big-boned, kicking legs, chubby smiles, and twinkling eyes that laughed back at you. He loved his mother’s touch and reached out to her frequently. Jennifer had dreams for him: To be a football player like his grandfather, a happy and successful man who graduated from college and dated nice girls—the typical American dream. 

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