What Does My Autistic Son Get Out of Prayer?

This Chanukah I tried to understand why my severely autistic son prays.

Psychology Today, December 7, 2018

Human beings come packed with mystery; how much do we ever really know what someone else thinks and feels? Even if they tell us, do we understand their situation in itself? I don’t think so. We can only understand in reference to our own experience, feelings and thoughts.

But it doesn’t matter, does it? People connect, nevertheless. This is why it makes no sense saying that people with autism are a mystery, because actually that’s just redundant. If they’re a person, they are mysteries.

My autistic son Nat is more outwardly a mystery to me than others but I have to remind myself that he’s not that unique in this regard. Lately, because it’s Chanukah, I’ve been wondering about his spirituality, wishing to know more about what religion and God means to him. I’ve always known that he enjoys the holidays. You could say it’s because there’s so much ritual, plus the celebrations are always the same. That makes holidays a comfortable fit for Nat, who relies heavily on strict schedules and calendars and behavior for his ability to function. I’ve written many times about how Nat loves to say the Hebrew prayers, even does it when my Christian father-in-law lights candles at the Christmas table.

It’s Chanukah now, and Nat’s caregiver sent me a video of Nat lighting his electric menorah. I found myself wondering how much of this is due to Nat’s spirituality—passion for God—and how much is about his passion for familiar ritual. This question was followed by another: why do I subject Nat to this kind of analysis, when I don’t with any other Jew who observes holidays?

It’s because it is so much more of a miracle when Nat prays. Here is a guy who has difficulty speaking English, navigating the most basic human interactions, and yet he simply leads everyone in prayer anytime we light candles. I’ve seen him doing this so many times, yet it still has the power to make my heart seize up with joy. And I’m not a religious Jew in any sense. I only celebrate the way I want to. I eschew ritual that doesn’t resonate with me, and I cherish activities that do.

On the sixth day of Chanukah, I decided to write about Nat’s spirituality. As I was settling into the rhythm of writing, at a table in my favorite coffee shop, I picked up on two words from the conversation at the table next to me: “disabilities” and “teaching.” I tuned in, of course, and learned that they were Jewish educators and they were trying to figure out how to successfully include families with disabilities in the congregation.

I couldn’t believe this coincidence. I leaned over and asked if I could show them Nat’s video. They were so delighted by it, they started asking me for advice about helping these families, some of whom actually felt shamed by congregants who stared at their children. I told them about Nat’s experiences in Sunday School as a little boy, which culminated in his bar mitzvah. They really wanted to know what it would take to make these families feel welcome. “Maybe ask them what they need,” I said, which is something our former temple never did. We left that place ultimately because they had been so clueless, so overbearing and awkward. They did not save a bar mitzvah date for Nat, thinking that there was no way he could be bar mitzvah’ed in front of the whole congregation. Plus, their way of opening up the community to disabled Jews was to make a Sabbath service (Shabbat) for families with disabilities, a special night that showcased the disabled students. But to me this still keeps them separate. True inclusion is for every Shabbat service to have everyone there, and for every congregant to be comfortable—not some one-off special night. True inclusion is already knowing that everyone is worthy of being showcased, taken where they are and seeing where they can potentially go. True inclusion is not comparing one person’s skills to another’s, and creating one standard, but comparing each person to himself. His personal goals become his standard, and his growth is measured by how close he comes to it.

And then in that moment, recalling my anger at that congregation, I understood something new: that Nat’s religious success had nothing to do with me, with how I bad I had felt in that temple community. Somehow, something went right for him way back, and it stuck with him. No, I don’t know for sure how he feels about Judaism or God, but here’s what I do know: that when family lights candles, he feels comfortable enough that for that moment in time, he can speak freely.