Mitzvot and the Autistic Spectrum

When I was a kid I remember asking my mother what being Jewish was about and she told me that really what it all came down to was mitzvot what she called, doing good deeds.

As I got older and my Jewish education expanded through my formal Jewish education but also attending Jewish summer camps and being involved in Jewish youth groups, I came to learn that mitzvot was more than good deeds, but mitzvot referred to the Jewish people’s obligations to fulfill the commandments laid out in the Torah.   That things such as respecting the Sabbath, listening to the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, eating in a Sukkah are all mitzvot.

My husband and I are by no means religious people and we certainly are not living a religious life, but one of the things I looked forward to when thinking of having children was to be able to pass on Jewish traditions to them. I pictured lighting Shabbat candles and saying the blessings, I pictured our daughter at religious school, cracking jokes and not paying attention while some well-intentioned middle aged woman was trying to teach Hebrew songs.  I pictured my daughter in shul, running and cavorting with the rest of the kids during services.  I saw her making construction paper chains to hang up in the Sukkah as I did, learning how to bake challah, marveling at the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah and having fun shaking her grogger at Purim..

I pictured her in the warm embrace of the Jewish community.

Well,  our daughter did run around and cavort in services but after she turned about 4, rather than earning laughter and smiles, she, and mostly we, earned scorn, as she ran around uncontrollably, screaming incessantly during services and even one Shabbat, walking up to the bima and putting her head under the robe of the Cantor during Lecha Dodi.

Hello scorn and disapproval from the congregation and goodbye synagogue.  That was four years ago.

A few months after the Great Cantor Robe incident, our daughter was diagnosed with autism, we’ve hardly shown our faces in synagogue since.

At first it was just too hard.  We were reeling from the diagnosis, our daughter was having multiple meltdowns on a daily basis.  It was all we could do to just get through each day.  When I tell you that simple things like getting dressed and brushing her teeth were a struggle, the idea of adding synagogue or another challenging environment just seemed both impractical and detrimental both for her but also for our santiy.

So we stayed away.

After our daughter started therapy and was put in special education things slowly started to improve for her. She responded well to therapy and slowly started making strides forward.  Meltdowns became less frequent the daily routine is manageable for her (and us).  She started to understand what was required of her in school although academic progress is slow going but she has slowly started to understand the world around her and what is expected of her in familiar environments.  This understanding came from years of following the same routine, with reward and reinforcement.  Even so she is still a child who marches to her own drum (actually it’s more a xylophone).

Synagogue is tough.  It’s a lot of people that she doesn’t know, it’s language based rather than visually based.  Certainly the concept of G-d and Torah are over her head.  There are tons of kids and social situations which are challenging for her.  She either runs wild with the toddlers and the inappropriate looks and comments start  or she is isolated with kids her own age because she doesn’t really understand what they are doing and they think she is talking jibberish most of the time because she is in her own pretend world, but talking completely normally.  Being prone to over stimulation, the whole thing  is more often than not  just too much for her and for us.

At my daughter’s age, I was already a year or two into Hebrew school.  I can’t even conceive of how my daughter coud have a Bat Mitzvah, even if she did the bare minimum, I don’t think she could handle being on the bima with all eyes on her.  When she dances or sings at home she tells us not to look or listen to her.  I don’t see Jewish summer camp a part of her future either.

The few times we took her to shul over the past few years, it was always really tough for her, she couldn’t sit still but she also couldn’t manage running around with the other kids unsupervised which meant that either my husband I had to hover, which isolated her even more or we would try to keep her in the service with us which caused her to get bored, antsy and here and there we would get polite but barbing commentary from people sitting next to us, that our daughter was too old to act the way she was acting.  Usually the whole experience  ended up with us leaving early to avoid a meltdown.

So, going to synagogue on holidays like Rosh Hashanah has always seemed too much for us.

We light candles, say kiddush at home and slowly, slowly she is starting to understand some of the Jewish holidays and traditions although I must say a lot of that understanding comes from social media.  She understands Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and Pesach not just from what we do at home but by watching videos of things like the Ein Prat Fountainheads and their wonderful, truly amazing holiday videos.

With autism, you use whatever works.

And here’s the rub, the Jewish community offers the possibility of a real community for our daughter, a community which could be an anchor for her in her life, a place of comfort and support.

But how do you get that support when  you are autistic, when making those social contacts are so tough, when you are overly sensitive to noise and overstimulation, when bonding takes daily consistent interaction and patience?

Like I said, neither my husband nor I are religious people but I know that G-d’s divine presence runs through my daughter.  She is a happy, joyful child with light eminating from her.  Even at her tender age, with her challenges, she is a caring, loving child who likes to make those around her happy.

So while she may not be exactly fulfilling the mitzvot in a literal sense, I do believe she is fulfilling them by living the spirit of human kindness.

Maybe the Jewish community will follow.



About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.