Home > Family, Sermons, Uncategorized > All Four Children: Standing Up for Autism

All Four Children: Standing Up for Autism

Ever since my oldest son Rami was born six years ago, we have always known that he was a little different. When he was 3 months old, his self-imposed routine was so precise that we could predict – down to the minute – when he would nurse. When he was a toddler, we used to joke that, “Rami doesn’t have fun. He explores and studies, but no fun.” At age 2, he had a tantrum so severe that he broke a kitchen chair. And as a 3-year-old, he was the last kid in his class at school with separation anxiety (and that was the same when he was 4, and 5, and yesterday.) But he also makes up songs – songs that are really good and display incredible musical talent. He communicates at a level high above his age, he does math problems in his head, and he can chant the whole V’ahavta (and not just because he’s a rabbi’s kid!).

Rami is a little bit different. He is different because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of high functioning Autism. And I have spent the last six years discovering that different can be beautiful.

This past week, as we all sat around our seder tables, we talked about four different types of children. Our tradition distinguishes between the Four Sons based on the types of questions that they are able to ask and the types of observations that they can make about their surroundings. And the seder teaches us to teach them differently based on those questions.

If you think about it, that’s really good educational theory. We are learning more and more that everyone learns differently; we all have different strengths and abilities. The Four Children teach us not to be afraid of those cognitive and learning differences, but instead to embrace them, to try to understand them, and to make use of them in the ways we teach our children and relate to others.

That is an especially important message today, because today is World Autism Awareness Day. Millions of people all over the world have Autism Spectrum Disorders; and 1 out of roughly every 110 children is now being diagnosed with it. (That means that statistically, there must be at least 20-25 people in our congregation.) As a society, we still have a long way to go to recognize the particular needs that people with Autism have, and the immense contributions that they can make.

Jacob Artson, a severely Autistic teenager whose father is a prominent Conservative rabbi, writes these words:

…at the age of 6… [m]y behavior was so awful I hated myself…. But there was one doctor who… smiled at me in a way that reflected her belief that I was a worthy person with the ability and desire to engage, and she waited the very long time it took for me to smile back. [1]

It is easy to misunderstand what is different. It is easy to pity those whose communication is impaired, or fear those whose behaviors are erratic or disruptive. It is much more difficult to try to understand the behaviors, to see the unique individual behind them.

In the Torah reading for this week, we see Moses begging for intimate knowledge of God’s nature. Confused and frustrated by the Golden Calf incident and by God’s harsh reaction, he cries out, “Let me behold your presence!” What he really means is, “Let me understand who you are!” And in response, God allows Moses a glimpse of God’s divine back – the best that a mortal can do – and through that glimpse Moses begins to gain understanding of God’s nature.

When we seek to understand someone, we can begin to create a relationship with them, to transcend disability and difference and find the Image of God that is buried within.

As Jacob Artson adds in another article, “The only difference between you and me is that I have lots of labels attached to me, like nonverbal, severely autistic, and developmentally disabled. [2]

17 year old Jacob – who cannot talk – is obviously insightful and wise beyond his years, and he is right that labels are unhelpful and sometimes counterproductive. They can overshadow some very positive qualities of people affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Individuals with Autism are often extremely intelligent. They are full of passion and have meticulous attention to detail. They tend to be inherently spiritual, skilled, in the words of William Stillman, at “recognizing and deeply appreciating the beauty in everyone and everything about them.”[3] In fact, it might be argued that no less than Moses himself exhibits some of the qualities of High Functioning Autism: his deeply felt emotions (especially his anger), his propensity for structure and law, his highly developed sense of justice.

In Moses, we see these qualities as positive leadership traits. In fact, when we see people as individuals rather then syndromes, then we can learn to appreciate or even celebrate what we once found strange or disturbing.

Rabbi Joanne Heiligman relates the story of a Jewish person who was repeatedly embarrassed when his Autistic son would jump up and down as the Torah was brought out of the Ark. Finally someone came up to him and said, “Every week your son jumps and dances when the Torah comes out. We should all be so joyous at that moment.”

There is an old saying that “the Jews are just like everybody else, only more so.” This statement may really be true of people who have Autism, whose emotional responses are not naturally tempered by social constraints. They allow themselves to fully experience what it feels like to love, or fear, or enjoy, pr be in awe. Their sometimes strange behaviors are the result of these deeply human, deeply religious emotions.

One our congregants, a mother of a child with special needs, recently wrote to me. She spoke of her son’s difficulties attending religious school, and services, and camp. She spoke of the angst of watching him try – and so often fail – to make friends. She spoke of the joy of seeing his passion when he races to hug his sister. She said, it has been “A long journey, but it has been my most spiritual [journey], too.” I would say the same of my own son, who astonishes me, and humbles me, and frustrates me, and teaches me something new every day.

We have a great deal still to learn about Autism and the people if affects; but in the meantime, there is a great deal we can learn from them. Like the four children, all we have to do is ask our questions and listen to the answers.

On this World Autism Awareness Day, may we open ourselves up to think in new ways about people who have developmental challenges.

On this Passover, may we celebrate what is unique about all Four Children, and the children who don’t quite fit any of the molds.

And on this Shabbat, may we recognize the image of God in every person.


[1] Artson, Jacob. “Opening the Gates of Torah.” http://www.uscj.org/Opening_the_Gates_of7523.html
Artson, Jacob, “Encumbered and Blessed.”  http://www.uscj.org/Encumbered_and_Bless8286.html
Stillman, William. Demystifying the Autistic Experience.

  1. Nancy Schick
    April 30, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Great Blog, Micah!

  2. Frume Sarah
    June 16, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    A beautiful post.

    Our son, Ben, was also marching to his own beat from the moment he emerged. Though it is draining being his parent, it is also a wondrous journey. And has made me a better rabbi.

    • June 19, 2010 at 7:40 pm

      I would hope that it’s also made me a better rabbi. It has certainly given me a sensitivity to the fact that every family has its own unique challenges. That’s also a comforting fact in those moments when having a child with special needs can feel very lonely.

  1. June 20, 2010 at 10:03 am

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