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.
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.
Those dreams evaporated with Bradley’s diagnosis of autism when he was just two-and-half years old. “That was what was most devastating as a parent,” Jennifer said, tearing up. “Your dreams have to stop when you get the diagnosis. … Oh, I could cry right now because it’s so real. It’s a death of a vision and a dream.”
Jennifer started realizing something was wrong with Bradley when he turned 2. During his second birthday party at a park, he showed no interest in presents or socializing. Instead, he traced the perimeter of the park, walking round and round by himself. Other little signs raised alarm: He was abnormally fascinated with things that spun. He would spin the wheels of his toy cars for hours, staring deeply into the rotating steel. He also liked to rewind certain scenes in a movie, playing them over and over.
When Bradley was diagnosed, doctors rarely detected autism. It took three doctors to determine Bradley had ASD. He was at the forefront of the huge wave of autism diagnoses and awareness. Since the early 90s, rates for ASD diagnosis have increased more than four-fold. “But at that time, it was hardly talked about,” Jennifer said. “You know, I just thought of that movie, Rain Man, starring Tom Cruise. That’s all I knew of autism then.”
The 1988 film stars an autistic man who is a talking, functional, math-whiz super-genius with a photographic memory. But autism stretches into a long spectrum from high functioning to low, with a wide range of symptoms, skills, and intellectual and physical impairment. Bradley is considered severely disabled. He’s nonverbal— although he blabbers— and he still plays with toys. If he is a genius, he is unable to communicate it in “normal” society’s terms.
After Bradley’s diagnosis, Jennifer started thinking about God a lot more. Although she was raised as a Christian, she distanced herself from God as an adult. Then one day, she had what she describes as an “out-of-body” experience. She was sprawled on the floor, changing Bradley’s diaper and weeping bitterly at her situation. “And then I was suddenly at the top of the room looking down at myself,” she recalled. “That was when I thought, ‘I really need to find out who God is in my life right now.’ And I said, ‘God, I need you.’”
Jennifer attended a Christian retreat and recommitted her life to Him. At home, she devoured her Bible, journaling her meditations and praying out loud. “Something awoke in me,” she said. “God became real to me for the very first time. One day I just felt his love come on me tangibly, and I started crying. Oh God, it’s real. It’s so real. Your love is real. I love you, Jesus. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
After 17 years of praying, Bradley still hasn’t “recovered,” at least in clinical terms. But his mother has been healing. She has penned through numerous “meditation” journals, and she’s studied her Bible so much that she regularly quotes appropriate verses during conversations. It’s clear from her prayers that she’s someone who talks to God often.
But Jennifer’s journey remains one of continuous healing. I’ve seen her with dark circles beneath eyes red from exhaustion and frustration, but I’ve also seen those same eyes light up as she prays out loud and shares whatever Scripture she’s read that day.
For Jennifer, every single moment is a choice: “We make that decision of whether to let God open up the heavens over our life … or we can just suffer through trials. … The message that I want to give to all autistic parents is this: Never give up, because God’s Word is there.”