Yonatan Birnbaum

From the Seder to On the Spectrum

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First comes Acceptance

“Really?” A pretty common response. “He doesn’t look autistic.” 

Six years old and soon to begin first grade, our son doesn’t always fit the role of his ASD diagnosis. In most cases, he is generally calm and doesn’t flap his arms or react to a poorly lit room. He also eats pretty well, sleeps through the night and is coming along quite well in reading and math. Even at the time when he was first diagnosed 4 years ago, I pushed back. 

“You want to give a title for my child,” I told the psychologist at the clinic. “Go ahead. This is not autism.” 

The following day, he got in the car just as any other day and I waved to him goodbye. He didn’t wave back. In fact, his gaze drifted off to a totally different direction. I went back into my apartment, sat on the kitchen floor and spent the next fifteen minutes, crying. 

The Seder

The Passover Seder. It’s been a cherished tradition for Jewish people for centuries. It’s a time-honored ritual that brings families and communities together to celebrate their history and heritage. The Seder has been celebrated in many different forms over the years, but the basic elements have remained the same. From the times of the ancient Israelites, the Seder has served as a reminder of the Jewish people’s resilience and a way to pass down the stories and traditions of previous generations to new ones. Despite centuries of persecution and oppression, the Jewish people have continued to gather together each year to celebrate the Seder and to remember their shared history and identity. 

The only thing is that a lot of us today…dread it. 

After a week of intense cleaning, laundry, haircuts, shopping, pouring boiling water on everything, doing laundry again because we smell of burnt chametz, all we want to do is take it easy. But instead, Pesach begins, ushering along with it a long ceremony that includes a saga of text, hamster-portion sizes of various veggies, wine for an empty stomach, singing and at some point through it all, an actual meal. And let’s not forget that one relative who feels the need to insert a sermon, exactly when the kids have had it, as if there aren’t already enough rituals going around. Dayenu! 

And the meaning behind it all? Have the children ask questions. 

Why are we eating matza? Why are we dipping celery? Why are we leaning in our chairs? Why couldn’t chocolate bars represent the bricks of slavery as an alternative to bitter herbs? 

In some way, the commandment to tell our children about the Jewish Exodus has been transformed into more of a dialogue, intended to have the next generation actually engage in the conversation rather than serve as a passive recipient. The problem is that a lot of us can’t really be bothered. But we do it, regardless. Year in and year out. Generation after generation.

This irked me for quite some time. But then I had kids. And that’s when it started seeping in. The Seder isn’t an event in and of itself. It’s a process. And in that process, a lot happens. The kids learn about the Seder in gan prior to Pesach. They come home to describe what they learned. We as parents expound further on it. We give them other contexts in their daily life to understand slavery and freedom, evil and good. Then there’s the actual Seder itself. The children may be interested. They may have a temper tantrum. They may demand to take Eliyahu HaNavi to court. That’s not really so relevant. What does matter is that at some point during the process leading up to the Seder or even years later, it clicks and they realize they are a part of something bigger than themselves. They experience a new narrative that they want to be a part of. Which is why it’s also so important for me to accept my child is autistic. 

Going on Auto-Pilot

As I mentioned, our son’s autism doesn’t stand out immediately. Often when I take him out of the house, I actually feel he doesn’t really need much. Whether it’s to shul, to the playground, out shopping; more than not, he often is pretty compatible. Initially, he will show interest in what’s going on around him. He’ll go up the ladder, he’ll take a siddur and look at the text like other people, he’ll walk along the shopping aisle with me and help pick out some produce. And then, almost inevitably, he’ll phase out of the world around him and begin tediously rolling his toy car on anything and everything, or begin counting numbers he sees without end. This can be his default mode at home, too and can go on for a very long period of time. Honestly, with so many things on my mind and so many chores to get done, this has its advantages. Make sure he has something with wheels or a marker to write numbers, and I can finish up on my emails. That’s all.

There is a silver lining to all this, of course. 

Though it may be comfortable, it is upon me as a parent to assure he is being challenged. Even if he is content with simple games, how can I take that to the next level for him? How can I make sure that even if it’s difficult, that he shows interest in the world and the people around him? And that when it does happen, that those interactions are appropriate? To ignore those questions is to essentially ignore that he has these impediments or that they won’t be an issue for him in the future. It’s to ignore that he has autism. 

Autism Awareness Day

I write this article on World Autism Awareness Day, leading into Autism Awareness Month. The world has come a long way to accepting and recognizing autism for what it is but obviously there are still stigmas. I hope that I can fully accept my child’s autism so I can struggle through these difficulties with him, together. I hope I can have a dialogue even if not through words on what each other is experiencing. Ultimately, I would like to share how incredible and exciting the world is around us.

Whatever we wish to impart on our children, be it a narrative, life skills, certain knowledge, it all requires effort and patience. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. But it is possible. We just need to make sure we are asking the right questions.

About the Author
Raised in Baltimore and an oleh since 2008, I now work for a yeshiva in the old city. Aside from being a dedicated husband and father, I spend my free time biking throughout Jlem and practicing Capoeira.
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