Imagine having a child who won’t look at you or talk to you. Imagine having a son who won’t smile, but who spits, screams, flaps his arms and bashes his head against the wall.
Imagine all of that, and then try to imagine the devastation and heartache that comes with being the parent of an autistic child.
With her autistic son, Bradley, now 13 years old, Kelly Ingram of Jasper has lived through what she describes as hell on Earth. But through her new and powerful relationship with Christ, she has emerged into a place where love, hope and grace trump despair.
From the kitchen table of her Sharp Mountain home, Ingram held nothing back as she retold her story, from living simply as a young and happily married woman, through life-changing brokenness into a rich and fulfilling world of motherhood and a new career ministering through music and media.
Ingram and her husband Mark married just out of high school and divided their time between working during the week and letting loose on the weekends.
Jasper boy Bradley Ingram and his mother Kelly at the Special Olympics. Bradley is 13 years old and has autism.
During her teenage years, Ingram attended a performing arts school but gave that up after marriage. She worked “regular jobs” as administrative assistants and receptionists and had no interest in God or spirituality. She and her husband lived on their own terms.
“The jobs were stuff that I hated,” she said. “But weekends were partying hard, and that was pretty much it. Then Bradley came, and it all changed.”
Ingram was 24 when her son Bradley was born. After a few years, she and Mark began noticing developmental problems.
“I didn’t want to admit it,” she said. “I thought we had a genius, but my husband said, no, there’s something wrong. I didn’t want to take him to the doctor to have him tested, because I just didn’t want to believe it.”
Ingram’s husband finally convinced her to take Bradley for an exam, and the doctor diagnosed him with autism, which now affects one in 110 children in the United States. This diagnosis threw Ingram into a self-destructive tailspin. She was completely devastated and began to self-mutilate.
“At my heaviest I was 260,” she said. “I became morbidly obese and was disgusting. I would sit on that front porch and smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. I would leave [Bradley] in the living room and lock the door, so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. He was so brutal. He was one of those real feral autistic kids that would hit and beat his head, and he screamed and hollered, and I couldn’t handle it. I was killing myself.”
Ingram was forced to quit her job and stay home with her son while her husband Mark picked up a second job to pay for their new house and two car payments. Her marriage began to crumble, but she was too absorbed with herself to care.
“Now I had no husband at home, because he worked all the time,” she said. “My marriage was falling apart around me, but I didn’t even notice, because I was in a self-pity party pit that I couldn’t dig myself out of. I was living on this mountain. I had no friends. I was very secluded, and I lived here alone with him - the beast.”
The only reprieve Ingram had was on Sunday mornings, when her mother-in-law would pick Bradley up to take him to church. Ingram wouldn’t go, though. She said she was “using and abusing” the opportunity, enjoying the peace and quiet of being home alone.
This went on for six months. One day after service Bradley came home, and the family sat down for dinner.
“Well, we were about to eat, and Bradley held up his hands and went, ‘Wait, wait. Blessing?’ He had talked,” Ingram said. “That was the first time we could understand him. He was four at the time. That’s when Mark looked at me and said maybe we should start taking him instead of sending him.”
So the Ingrams began attending Cornerstone Church on Camp Road, and the day her life turned around was the same day she hit rock bottom.
“I was hideous and ugly,” she said, “and I’m not talking physical, but inside I was just so ugly. I would only sit in the back row of the church, just sulking. Well, the pastor started telling all about my and my husband’s life. The sermon was about self-mutilation. It was about slow suicide. No self worth. No confidence. I was drowning in consequences and circumstances.”
Ingram said she started crying. The sermon was “too heavy.” She was broken and couldn’t stand to hear anymore. She ran to the bathroom and went to shut the door, but the women in the church followed her.
“The door wouldn’t close. They came in behind me, and I received Christ on the bathroom floor that day,” Ingram said. “It was amazing. That is when my life changed. That’s when peace and understanding came.”
That was May of 2002. Ingram said she was filled with the grace, compassion and understanding of Jesus, and miraculous things began happening to her from that point.
Her marriage began to heal. The music she gave up in high school began coming back to her, but in a different way. She started writing songs, which she said she never had a talent for in the past.
An incredible string of events led her into a recording contract with DonnaJean records.
She landed a slot hosting a Christian television show on WATC-TV called Friends and Neighbors, and she is now doing a radio talk show on local station WYYZ AM. It is called Afternoon Sweet Tea with Kelly on Wednesdays from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m.
Ingram also won a Gabby Merit Award this year for Best On-Air Personality.
“I didn’t know anything about media,” Ingram said. She has a big, funny, no-holds-barred personality.
“I had that recording contract for a year, and the music just started channeling into television and radio. I guess I had no shyness anymore. Nothing can be as bad as the stuff I went through. I mean, I was sexually molested at five, and it just got worse from there. I had an abortion when I was 15. My life just sucked all the way through. Nothing shocks me or scares me, so I took to television like a duck to water. That’s where the Lord led me.”
And for Ingram, everything now comes back to the Lord, from her music to media endeavors, she sees them all as vehicles to praise God and minister to others. Her music is Christian-based, just as is the talk show and radio program.
“He’s done too much for me,” Ingram said. “I can’t compromise.”
Ingram’s Christian/gospel album, Praise You Through the Rain, is available at iTunes, CDBaby.com and Amazon.com.
Ingram is also organizing a local chapter of a national respite care program called P.U.R.E. Ministries for other parents who have disabled and autistic children.
Parents of disabled children are invited to bring their kids to Cowboy Church off of Jerusalem Church Road once a month for a reprieve. Children will be allowed to spend time with horses and to do other activities geared toward the disabled.
“You don’t have to do anything,” she said. “We won’t preach at you. It’s not about the church. We want you to have a hope and a break. People don’t realize the abuse that disabled children can suffer and parents need some time to breathe. I would have loved to have something like this.”
Bradley is now 13 years old and attending PCMS, where he is in a contained classroom away from “normal” children, his mother said. Bradley also speaks now, and Ingram describes him as generally happy and positive. Ingram said despite her son’s severe disabilities, he speaks several languages and can perform trigonometry and paint beautifully.
She and her husband Mark also have another child, Clayton, 8, who is severely ADHD.
“Clayton’s incredible,” she said. “He’s a mess, but he’s sweet and compassionate, and he helps his brother with a lot of things. He told me once, ‘You don’t have to worry Mom. When you get old and die, I’ll take care of Bradley.’”
Ingram said unless the Lord chooses to heal Bradley further, he will never get married or drive a car. For the rest of her life, she will care for him in ways most mothers can’t imagine.
“Bradley’s 6’1” and 225 pounds and he can’t wipe his butt,” she said. “I have to do that. I have to bathe my kid like he’s two. He’s two in his mind. He writes on the walls with crayon, and he’s old enough to reach the ceiling now. The spitballs, God, there are stalactites hanging off the ceiling, but you have to clean him off and love ‘em anyway.”
Ingram said her marriage is now stronger than ever before. Like fine wine, she says she and her husband of 18 years are happier than they were as newlyweds.
“But there are still times when it’s hard,” she said. “Things can creep back up, but that’s when you give it to the Lord.”
Ingram recalled one evening when she had just gotten her colicky youngest son, then an infant, in the bed. She was exhausted, but her oldest, Bradley, had a meltdown and woke the baby back up.
“I just got down on my knees and said, ‘Lord, what’s the benefit [of knowing you]? It’s not any easier.’ I begged Him for just 10 seconds of normal and, you know, at that very moment Bradley’s eyes cleared up. Autistic children’s eyes are always 1,000 miles away, but it was like a cloud lifted from them, and for the first time ever he looked at me and said ‘Mommy, I love you.’ Then just as fast it was gone.
“That was the most supernatural experience of my life,” she said. “It was like God had showed me who he was on the inside, and from that point on I said, ‘Okay, Lord. I’ll follow you anywhere.”