Autism, inclusion, and theodicy

(I will freely admit that this post is largely an emotional reaction. Tough. Go read something else if that bothers you.)

The “Daily Reyd” feature at Rabbi Gil Student’s Torah Musings blog has a link to an article at the Orthodox Union’s website. Titled “The Gabbai With Autism: A Living Lesson In Inclusion,” the article talks about Eli Gorelick, a young man with autism who serves as one of several gabbaiim in his congregation.

I will first say that the synagogue’s ability to adapt to Eli and to effectively welcome him to lay leadership is–or should be, anyway–a model for inclusion for those able and willing to serve with accommodation. I have no quibble at all with any of that, and it’s precisely that kind of thing that we’re missing in so many other places.

My problem, of course, is going to be the theodicy piece. Eli’s father is himself a rabbi, and when one of Eli’s siblings asked his father why God made Eli the way He did, the answer was, “Hashem wanted us to do chesed for Eli.”

And that, dear reader, is when I decided it was time to take the day’s lunch break.

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And now, a brief intermission from our regularly scheduled program

Okay, let’s take a break from the Pew study, Jewish identity, etc. Well, a little break, anyway.

(Rummages in closet, grabs the “Autism dad” soapbox, drags it to the public square)

So, now I’m going to put on the Autism dad hat. I’m not going to make requests for expanded healthcare availability, more public school funding for services, etc. We’re just going to be people here for a bit.

An article today on is titled, “I MIssed the Autism Early Intervention Boat & That Might Have Been a Good Thing.” In it, the author, Dana Meijler, talks about her daughter’s Autism diagnosis at age five–past the threshold for “critical” early intervention.

Meijler has, among other things, this to say:

Our social worker, who was there to help us, told us to slow down and take a breath. Yes, therapy is important, but what was just as important was letting our daughter be herself. While therapy could help our daughter immensely, she would always have autism and would probably never be completely free of its symptoms. What was most important, she said, was that our daughter felt accepted and that we focus our energies on supporting who she is and encouraging her to take those scary steps outside of her own world.

I can’t emphasize how dead-on I think Meijler’s social worker was. We have tried, since our son’s diagnosis at age two (WAY inside the early intervention period), not to make Autism the defining feature of his life. Or, a different way of saying it, we just treat him as he is. In some respects, while we had early intervention services of some kinds (I was in school for much of this period, so we didn’t have insurance to cover treatment), we really were in a situation similar to Meijler’s. We just couldn’t do anything much about the diagnosis beyond developmental preschool until I was out of school, working, and insured.

More importantly, we don’t treat our son’s Autism as though it is a disease. It’s part of who he is, but it’s not who he is. We recognize that it affects how we live our lives, engage in social and business activities, and the like; that’s all unavoidable. But we treat Autism as just part of his personality; it creates certain triggers, requires certain treatments, but we still (try to) get him to do homework, wipe his hands with a napkin, sit politely in a restaurant, etc. We aren’t always successful; we may have less success at this than other parents do, but no one has a perfect child.

So he needs help with daily activities; who doesn’t? He’s a bright, funny kid with a memory like a steel trap. That’s good enough for us. If only others were able to be at ease, too.

Oh, and if only he would stay in his own bed at night, too. We’re still working on that one; I think he may have bruised my kidney with a swift shot from his knee at around 5 a.m. this morning.

(Puts the Autism dad soapbox away.)

And now, back to our regular programming.