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Colleen Swindoll-Thompson

As the daughter of one of the most influential evangelical Christians in the nation, Colleen Swindoll-Thompson has always strived to live by faith. But when her son Jonathan was diagnosed with autism and mental retardation at age 3, her faith was shaken. She reached a point of crisis when Jonathan received six additional diagnoses a few years later. The Bible verses ingrained so deeply in her memory came as little comfort to a mom who was shocked, saddened and angry at God.
At age 7, Jonathan’s fine and gross motor skills had regressed by 50 percent in a matter of days. He was diagnosed with severe Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, OCD, ODD, Global Anxiety Disorder and a possible seizure disorder. Colleen — daughter of Charles “Chuck” Swindoll, the renowned pastor, author of more than 90 books and founder of Insight for Living Ministries — could rattle off Bible verses by memory and had sat through countless sermons. But now, as she tried to process news of her son’s disabilities, she had difficulty reconciling what she believed in her head with the way she was feeling. “I had to wrestle with, ‘What am I going to choose?’” she says. “I had to choose to accept that life was going to be different. I couldn’t fix Jon. That was hard.”
Also hard was Colleen’s decision to move Jonathan and his two older siblings back to her home state of Texas, leaving behind California and a rocky marriage. As she rebuilt her family while struggling with deep depression, the support of her extended family became invaluable. Parents and siblings helped in practical ways by shuttling the older children to school and aiding in household chores. “They were great,” Colleen says. “And I am so thankful that no one forced the Bible down my throat. I think a lot of people don’t know what to do with a Christian who is angry. They let me cry, and they said a lot of ‘I don’t know’s.’”
Today, Colleen leads the Special Needs Ministry at Insight for Living, the globally reaching nonprofit founded by her father in 1979 that produces a radio ministry, counseling services and numerous biblically focused resources. Chuck and Cynthia Swindoll recognized the pressures their daughter was under. They saw an underserved population, moving them to create a program specific to families living with special needs. At Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, where Chuck Swindoll has been senior pastor since 1998, Colleen helped launch a Special Needs Ministry complete with fully accessible facilities. She stepped down in 2001 to spend more time caring for Jonathan. But, six years later the mom was happy to return to work as director of the Special Needs Ministries at Insight for Living where she stays busy writing and counseling families living with an array of disabilities.
The years since Jonathan’s diagnoses have been a revelation as Colleen watched her son, now 15, work to overcome many obstacles. “Part of what I love about having a child like Jonathan is that it reveals our humanness,” she says. “It has revealed for me a lot of pride I had. A lot of selfishness. A lot of expectations about life and about God. The best way to be is just who you are. I long for there to be an acceptance of that within the Christian community. Just let people be.”
Colleen says her father never pressured his four children to fit a particular mold as they were growing up. He’d often say, “Know who you are. Like who you are. Be who you are.” At 45, Colleen knows who she is. After years of praying for a cure, she says she’s come to a place where she’s grateful for the way things are. “The person I am now sees Jon as such a gift … to free me from myself.” Small things that some take for granted are precious to Colleen. She cries as she describes the first time Jonathan said, “I love you, Mom,” at 3 years old. She didn’t know if she’d ever hear him speak.
When asked to describe a proud mom moment, she has a hard time picking just one. “I’m proud of him every day that he walks out the door, because there is a sense of awareness that he’s looked at,” she says. “He’s laughed at. Stared at. He’s been bullied. A proud moment is when I see him standing alone on the playground and he endures.” She is also proud of the kindness he freely shows to strangers. Jonathan is unable to be anything but his authentic self, a lesson Colleen says we could all learn.
Colleen’s family took on a new shape in 2009. She remarried, acquiring two stepchildren in the process. She says the blend has been fairly seamless. Jonathan is especially fond of his stepfather Toban, who he calls Dad. Colleen is careful to ensure that Jonathan still gets plenty of undivided attention. Each Friday after school, she and Jonathan enjoy a designated date time.
Jonathan will always be dependent, a fact that hasn’t escaped his siblings, who wonder what this might mean for their own futures. And although there are still hard days for Colleen, she’s overwhelmingly grateful for all that Jonathan has taught her. “I appreciate life so much more,” she says. “I’m lonelier than I was before. It’s a lonely way to view life … with one foot in heaven and one foot here. Not a lot of people understand it, and I don’t expect them to.”
For more information on the Insight For Living Special Needs Ministry, visit insight.org/resources/topics/special-needs.