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Raising the Bar (Mitzvah) For Autistic Kids

Posted Sep 02 2009 10:31pm

A long time ago, we gave Nat a bar mitzvah. This was before special organizations like Gateways, or other special needs religious school curricula were as common as they are now. I got together with a few other parents back when we belonged to a synagogue and we formed a Special Needs Task Force, to get the temple community to understand that they were inadvertently leaving out an important minority of the congregation. They needed to make aides available. One of Nat's teachers became an aide in the Sunday School class, and Nat was fully included that year.

It is difficult to put your finger on what our kids get out of Sunday School or religion in general; that is true of most kids. These days I don't get much out of mine. I identify with Judaism as a faith and I definitely believe in God and good; but I don't want to be part of a congregation. I really don't like the way I feel in religious services. Now and then I'll go with my mom, and every once in a while I'll feel something special and moving, especially when speaking or singing in Hebrew. The ancient Hebrew prayers feel real to me.

I think Nat feels the same way, with one big difference: he loves being in temple, much the way he loves being in any kind of group. I often don't feel good in groups. It's funny, that stereotype of autistic people disliking crowds, noise, others' company: you just can't lump together "autistics" any more than you can lump together "Jews" or "Republicans," for example. Nat loves groups, he loves noise, he loves parties.

At temple, however, he also tries to sing along and he definitely knows many of the shorter Hebrew prayers. I never did try to teach him Hebrew; that seemed too arduous. But he picks up on things, especially music, so he really enjoyed Sunday School.

The problem was, the year he was to be bar mitzvah'ed, he was left out of the choosing of the dates. The choosing of the dates of bar mitzvahs is important; your date dictates what your Torah portion will be, and what the theme of your Haftorah will be. But every Saturday was chosen already. They forgot Nat. All that was left for Nat was a mid-week bar mitzvah.

It broke my heart. But, like most things that piss me off, it spurred me to action. I planned a bar mitzvah without a temple, without a congregation, and it turned out beautiful. Nat was just perfect -- give or take some giggles.

Soon after the bar mitzvah, my book came out, and I gave a talk somewhere, and met Cathy Boyle. Cathy had just developed a Catholic Sunday School curriculum for autistic people. She and I were on the same page (different Bible). Today I got word that she has a second part of her curriculum, and that it is available here.

No child should have to be without a religious background if they have that side to them, and if it is important to the family. People like Cathy (and the folks at Gateways) make it that much easier for families to go about their business being just families. L'hitrot.
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