Imperfect by Design
We need to acknowledge that the world is a square hole, and some people are round. They do not always fit in. I believe strongly in the parents who fight for their children to be able to make it work in the yeshivah - even if they are a round peg to our square hole. But I also have come across parents who need to recognize that their child’s true success and satisfaction might not be best accomplished here. That’s something that can be very hard to face.
The Chofetz Chaim explained the bracha of "Borei Nefashos" along these lines: “I have created a world with certain chesronos, deficits. The purpose being just as I do chessed, you too must do chesed with those who are not perfect by design.”
In cases where we can all "bend" a little to make it "fit", we do, and the challenge proves well worth the effort. Our yeshivah in particular deploys a small army of therapists and tutors to help integrate these children. There are some cases though, where the success in mainstreaming would come at the expense of the child’s satisfaction in learning. If there was an environment that could accommodate these children better, then I would hope that parents would give that child the best chance to truly succeed.
- Rabbi Asher Sabo, Menahel, Yeshiva Torah Vodaath
Some of history's most accomplished figures -- such as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and Albert Einstein -- are assumed to have been on the autism spectrum. Recent studies show that 1 out of 68 children, mostly male, are diagnosed with autism. With proper guidance, these children can and must be set up for success.
Like all other children, they require individualized programming and constant validation to feel good about themselves in order to accomplish their goals. In two decades of experience with troubled youth, it has become very clear that these are the most important ingredients in any chinuch program.
In Lashon Hakodesh, Osher is one the highest forms of happiness. The root of the word means validation. We need self- worth and feeling good about ourselves in order to be happy.
Children on the spectrum provide us with multiple opportunities for great accomplishments. We can perform lifesaving Chessed, taking them from failure to success and possibly even nurturing some of the greatest leaders of the future, by giving them the opportunity to learn in a way that is tailor-made to their strengths. In addition, the example that we set, with the proper focuses in educating these children, can inspire a major change for the better throughout our entire educational system.
- Rabbi Shaya Cohen, Rosh Yeshivas Zichron Aryeh; Founder, Priority-1
Call of the Hour
Over the past 15 years, our community has come a long way – but not long enough. When it comes to our children's chinuch, we cannot consider ourselves successful if we've achieved anything less than 100 percent success.
“If not for Rabi Yehoshua ben Gamla,” the Gemara declares, “Torah would have been forgotten from Klal Yisrael” (Bava Basra 21a). The Gemara goes on to explain that until he instituted compulsory communal responsibility for education in every city, children without fathers were left with no one to teach them Torah.
This Gemara begs clarification, however: Even if the orphans could not learn Torah, why go so far as to state that Torah would have been forgotten entirely? Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky ztz”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, explains: It must be that chazal are telling us that if we don’t supply a Torah chinuch for every yiddishe child, Torah is in jeopardy for the entire Klal Yisrael.
If some children are left abandoned at the back of the classroom, the Torah of the entire nation, even that of Lakewood, Mir, Brisk and Ponovezh, is in danger!
I believe it is a Divine “call of the hour" to set up an educational program specifically designed for children with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism. We should be grateful to these parents who are raising the issue on our behalf and we should be ready to assist them in any way possible.
- Rabbi Yaakov Mandel, Ichud Mosdos Hachinuch
As a special education attorney, I constantly work with parents seeking my assistance in finding appropriate educational placements and services in the public school system here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, the yeshiva systems here and in communities throughout the country are often not properly equipped to help students who “don’t fit the yeshiva mold” thrive and succeed. As a result, these students either fall through the cracks or the yeshiva tells parents to take their sons and daughters elsewhere.
I daven regularly that our own communities will design an educational plan that will give these children the support they need to be successful in yeshivas. One reason this is difficult for the yeshivas is that each child needs an individual educational plan to reach his or her potential. Some children might soar in a typical classroom when given specific supports and accommodations. Other children need separate classrooms in which to thrive. As a result of the lack of special education infrastructure in the yeshivas, I am driven to advocate for educational placement, services, and supports in the public school system. It is heartbreaking to walk by my local public school and see so many kippas, tzitzit, and long skirts.
- Melissa Amster, Esq.,Amster Law Firm
The Loneliness is the Worst
I've found the leading factors for success in life are happiness, healthy self-esteem, and satisfaction. Of all the things that make us feel happy and satisfied, by far the most important is our relationships with family and friends.
When it comes to children with high-functioning autism in a mainstream environment, a problem that often occurs is a lack of real friendships. True friendship is a mutual relationship where the two seek each other out and relate to each other as equals. Children with Asperger’s can often form relationships with neuro-typical peers; however, at some point they will come to realize that these relationships are without true emotional reciprocity.
The greatest challenge to these children’s success in school is the lack of sufficient peer support and mutual peer friendships. Imagine going through life with all your relationships being based on chessed without emotional reciprocity -- it’s terribly lonely.
While children with high-functioning autism usually cannot have true friendships with neuro-typical children, they can definitely have them with other children like themselves. These true peers often share a common bond and truly enjoy each other’s company. Having these kinds of interpersonal relationships -- having people in your life who you can feel good about -- is more important than anything else in the building of a healthy self-esteem and thereby a healthy adult.
Parents often want their child to be in a mainstream setting to prepare them for the "world out there." But when that comes at the cost of giving them real peers and mutual relationships, they will pay with a shattered self-esteem.
For those children who are academically on par with their neuro-typical peers, but are socially or emotionally unable to attain true friendships in that setting, they are in this difficult gray area where they don’t belong with disabled children but aren’t thriving with neuro-typical children either. Ideally, these types of children should be with each other. If a child can spend his days in an environment with children with whom he can form true friendships, he will be far more equipped for the real world with his self-esteem intact, versus the child who spent years in a mainstream setting and is left with frustration and loneliness.
- Dr. Alan Blau, Phd, BCBA, formerly at HASC, currently Hamaspik staff psychologist