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My Experience With Asperger's Syndrome
March-18-09
Issue: 10.03
this is column number 24
e-mail me e-mail Nathan
 
Good old reliable...

At age four, I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and have been in Special Education since age three. Asperger Syndrome (AS)  is a neurological disorder that is on the autism spectrum. Common traits of AS include: difficulty with social skills--such as knowing the correct social thing to do, or say. Other traits include difficulty with physical skills, such as making a bed. or shoe-tying. People with AS also have intense special interests, on which they focus, almost exclusively, at times.  My interests have consisted of Judaism, American History, Writing, Social Action, and most recently, Disability Awareness.

It has also been difficult for me, at times, to function within the Jewish Community. Ironically, while my special interests, at one point, kept me out, they have, more recently, brought me back in. When I was in Religious School, at my synagogue, as a young child, I was uninterested in the lessons, because I was not taught in a way I could appreciate, and understand. More importantly, I was simply uninterested, because the curriculum did not fit in with my then- interests, which consisted of  various movies, such as Aristocats, the Sound of Music, and Toy Story. However, during my last year of religious school, my teacher, and her then teen-aged daughter, went to great efforts to ensure that I was comfortable in class, and I very much appreciated their efforts. Unfortunately, however, my parents decided it just wasn’t working, and I began receiving Jewish education from a private tutor.

Gradually, my tutor was able to use my interests to get me interested in Judaism. As an incentive to stay on task, she set up a system of “Nathan Dollars,” which were fake money I was “paid” with, for staying on task. For every “Nathan Dollar” I earned, I could spend one minute discussing a favorite topic. While this worked for me, one should be careful as to how they apply these reward systems--as I could well see a child with AS feeling demeaned, and infantilized. Moreover, we need to remember here that just as two non-AS individuals are not exactly alike, the same applies to AS individuals.

As I began to prepare for my Bar-Mitzvah, I realized that I wanted  to merge my interests with my Bar-Mitzvah studies. An opportunity presented itself when I learned that my Bar-Mitzvah Parasha was Ha’azinu, which consists of Moses’ last speech. Given that Robert Kennedy, whom I was passionately interested in at the time, also died after giving his last speech, I decided to give a Dvar Torah comparing, and contrasting, Moses, and Robert Kennedy’s, last speeches. The Dvar Torah was very well received, and I was delighted when it was published as a Community Voices article in the Washington Jewish Week in June 2006. Since then, I have continued using my strengths to write. I have since published Letters to the Editor, and various articles in both the Jewish, and mainstream media.

After a few years of writing, and studying, Judaism, I felt something was missing. As my interest in Judaism deepened, I wanted to attend a Jewish day school that could provide me with the support I needed. At first, that proved quite a challenge. However, my parents found a special education program, at a local Jewish Day School, with a very good reputation, which I visited, and loved. As of this past fall, I am attending that program.

I very much enjoy attending this program, and have had many positive experiences there. This past November, I was the speaker at an annual freshman sensitivity training workshop. I got a lot of positive feedback, from my peers, about my presentation. The Jewish community does a commendable job of including those with disabilities. If every child, regardless of whether they have Special Needs, had the nurturing teachers, and peers, that I have, society would be greatly improved.

The Tanach teaches, “You shall not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind….” In contemporary society, this should be interpreted to mean that we exceed the biblical instruction--and support all members of their community, regardless of their differences.

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