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  • What do we tell the children? Autism in a Jewish Family

    Posted on June 17th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 7 comments

    All too often we as individuals and as community leaders battle with expectations of perfection that can create unreasonable pressure for our children and families. While we understand that the perfect Jewish family is a myth, there is often silence when it comes to speaking about the challenges we face. This week, we have the pleasure of reposting a piece by Deborah Greene wife of Rabbi Fred Greene (HUC-JIR  NY 2001) While in general it is our practice to post the words of our alumni directly, we felt that Deborah’s piece spoke to a family reality that she and Fred share together.

    Fred Greene

    What follows is a tremendously inspiring story of strong thoughtful parenting. It is a wonderful model for talking with kids about hard issues of all sorts. It is hard to overestimate the power for our communities of seeing that they are not alone in their struggles. This piece was orginally posted on Deborah’s blog Puzzled.

    Deborah Greene

    To Tell or Not To Tell

    “We, the one’s who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen not as a disability, but as a person who has, and will continue to bloom. To be seen not only as a handicap, but as a well intact human being.” (Robert M. Hensel)

    The summer we told Yael about her autism. Her sister Leora by her side.

    As parents, we are faced with many difficult conversations. Amongst them, there is the “don’t do drugs” talk, the “don’t drink & drive” talk and of course there is the good old-fashioned, highly anticipated “birds & bees” conversation. Most of us spend a good amount of time thinking about how to get these conversations just right. We look for the best books, ask friends how they handled these conversations with their own children & seek out guidance from trusted sources. If you are the parent of a child with autism, you also need to tackle the “telling my child that they have a lifelong developmental disability” conversation. I can promise you that this particular conversation is one of the most intimidating, nerve-wracking & anxiety inducing conversations of all.

    You see, this particular conversation will help to shape how your child will see himself or herself for years to come. You want to impart the knowledge of who they are and why they are different without making them feel that their disability defines them. You want to help them understand their struggles, without making them feel limited in their capabilities. You want them to see themselves as “differently-abled” and not “disabled.” In addition, you want to help to ensure that they themselves won’t use their autism as an excuse, a “get out of jail free card” so to speak.

    Then there are the other components of this conversation. When do I tell my child? How will I know when the time is right for them to handle this information? How much or how little do I share? Do I share this information with their friends & classmates? The list goes on & on.

    Fred I began to think about having this conversation with Yael towards the end of her 2nd grade year. We knew that upon entering third grade, the social gap would widen significantly. We were already seeing her friends surpass her both socially & emotionally. What were seen as “little quirks” by her peers before, were now being seen as “strange” or “weird.” We also felt that it was becoming important to try & help her understand why she always had a teacher aid, went to social skills groups & needed occupational & other therapies. I guess you can say that we felt as if we wanted to help create a picture out of the many different puzzle pieces that made up her daily life.

    So, I talked with her therapists, began looking for good books and hit the web in search of a “how to guide” to having this conversation with Yael. We waited until the 2nd grade school year was over. Then, we waited for the perfect opportunity, believing we would know it when we saw it. Alas, the picture perfect moment never seemed to present itself. There always seemed to be something about it that we felt wasn’t “quite right.” Truth be told I think we knew that we were going to change our daughter’s perception of herself, and her sister’s perceptions as well, for the rest of her life. No matter how the conversation went, she would now know herself not simply as a person, but a person with autism and that scared the heck out of us.

    Finally, one night as we all sat around the dinner table, Yael began to share something that she had done in occupational therapy that day. I decided that it was time to close my eyes and just “jump” into the autism conversation. I asked her if she knew why she needed OT or why she went to her social skills group or other therapies. She knew some of the reasons she went: “I need help making my muscles stronger & working on balance.” “I need extra help learning about how to make friends.” I told her that the reason she needed help with these & many other things is because she has something called autism. There~the word was out there. I took a deep breath, braced myself for the rest of the conversation and, together with Fred, we went forward at the dinner table. We provided a safe space, where no question was discouraged & where Yael and her sisters could talk openly & honestly. We did our best to ensure that at no point in the conversation would we treat autism as a scary or bad thing, something that was “wrong” or “broken” with Yael, nor was it something to be embarassed about.

    It’s hard to share the entire conversation, as it went on for quite some time and was full of lots & lots of Q & A. We read a wonderful book called, “My Best Friend Will” by Jamie Lowell & Tara Tuchel. In this true story Jamie, then a 5th grader, writes about her best friend Will, who has autism. The beauty of the book, besides its inspirational story of acceptance & friendship, is that Jamie helped her readers to see and understand those parts of Will that came from his autism & those parts that made him just like every other kid. She helped break down ideas about autism & perseveration, sensory issues, communication & emotions into kid-friendly, non-threatening topics that helped us in our conversation. Yael could relate to Will’s trouble with loud noises (“Oh, so that’s why I have to cover my ears when I flush the toilet!”), his perseveration (“That’s why sometimes an idea gets stuck in your head & you have so much trouble letting it go.”) his trouble reading social cues & more. Jamie also shared all of the things about Will that make him just like everybody else. Will loves to swim & play, he has a family that loves him, he has pets, he goes to school etc….

    With the book read, the questions asked & answered (honestly & to the best of our ability) we ended our conversation, sent the kids to get ready for bed and with a still lingering sense of anxiety, asked one another, “How do you think that went?” “Do you think she understood it?” “Did we answer her questions & her sisters questions well enough?” In other words, the angst of going into this conversation was now replaced with the angst of coming out of the conversation.

    Fast forward to the next morning. Yael came into the kitchen, walked over to me and said, “Mom, I think we had a really good conversation about autism last night & you know what? I like having autism because autism is a part of me & I like myself just the way I am. I like being different, it makes me special.” With tears in my eyes & a lump in my throat, I allowed myself to exhale for the first time in weeks.

    I know this perception of herself & her autism may not last, or at the very least it may be challenged by the hardships that continually lie ahead for her. There will surely be times when she will wish to fit in with the crowd & won’t so readily celebrate being different. And though I pray she won’t, she may even come to view her autism as a curse, and not the gift she saw that morning. Our job as parents will be to continue to help her see her autism as simply a piece of what makes her Yael. We may not be able to protect her from how others will see it, but we believe that the more informed she is, the better she will be able to counter & stand up against labels and insults. Still, all that being said…that morning, in that moment, I felt that Yael’s dad & I had done good. We had gotten that first conversation right, and for that I was profoundly grateful.


    7 responses to “What do we tell the children? Autism in a Jewish Family”

    1. Deborah Greene

      Thank you for sharing this posting from my blog. Yael is an exceptional young lady and we have learned so much from her in her 11 years. Along with embracing her autism, she fully embraces & celebrates her Judaism. She has a strong sense of faith and upon receiving her own Tanakh this year, began studying the weekly portions with her dad.

      I believe that the Jewish community must move beyond a Disabilities Awareness Month, and begin to see that those who live with disabilities desire acceptance & inclusion each and every day of the year. We must help our communities to open their hearts, their doors & their minds throughout the year to those who are differently-abled. I hope the awareness this blog brings, will help to do that in some small way. That is why I write it.

      Just a note: The caption~ The summer we told Yael about her autism. Her sister Leora by her side~appeared as a caption under the picture at the top of this post.

    2. Wow, so poignant and powerful. I am inspired by Yael and by the caring and thoughtfulness of her parents.

      We didn’t have a name for my brother’s Asperger’s when he was young. Much frustration and pain. Now he is in his 30′s and understands and is still amazing in his own way.

      I will be cross posting this on my own blog soon.

    3. Deborah,

      Thanks you for a beautiful article. Are you still in the NY area? Are you ever in DC? The Special Needs Committee at the JCCNV is very active, and always looking for knowledge and further ways we can help our community. We would love to have you speak to/with us.

    4. Thanks for this very moving post. We went through a similar experience with our son, though he was a few years younger. We read him a book about Asperger’s Syndrome and let him come slowly to the realization that he resembled the child in the book.

      We talk about it in terms of challenges and blessings – “There are some things that you’ll have to work harder at, like making friends and expressing your feelings. And there are some things that will come more easily to you than to your friends, like music and math.” We have found that even for our 6 year old, giving a name to his difficulties helps him to understand why he is the way he is, and be better equipped to succeed.

    5. Thank you all for your kind words and for sharing your own experiences. Puzzled is a new blog, but the feedback that I have gotten in just the short time that I have been writing it, makes me feel that sharing our story is an important & worthwhile task. I will continue to share Yael’s journey and I hope that you will continue to share in it with me and my family.

      Jill, I am not in the New York area anymore, and have not gotten to D.C. in years. We live in Atlanta now. I am however always happy to speak by phone if you feel that I have something to offer. Puzzled is a new venture, but I have been advocating for my daughter for 8 years now. I am also a trained educator, with a Master’s degree in Special Education so I bring the perspective of a parent & an educator to my writing. As well, I believe that our Jewish faith plays a strong role in our family life, and therefore is an intergral part of our family’s puzzle.

      Deborah Greene

    6. Jill,

      I realized that I forgot to share my contact information with you. You can reach me at . I also have a FB community page devoted to Puzzled. It can be found at “Puzzled: Raising a Child With Autism & Other Pieces of Family Life.” Thank you.

    7. Parents can pass on autism-related gene without necessarily showing symptoms of autism themselves.

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