A person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society….

Shepherding children to adulthood is a bit of a whirlwind. The school years are often one long race from morning ‘til night. But as any parent of both a neurotypical child and a child with autism can testify, there is great variance in the nature of whirlwinds… both my husband and I realized early on that our parenting style changes dramatically depending on which offspring we are with at any given moment.
Just a mundane example: Looking back at the 13 years that our neurotypical daughter, who is now 26, was in school, we dutifully appeared for the standard parent-teacher conferences and events where her teachers heaped praise on her. In contrast, during the 16 years that our son, who has autism and is now 24, was in school, we were there for IEP meetings multiple times per year for ongoing consultations with teachers and administrators multiple times per year, disciplinary meetings, emergency meetings, negotiations about behavior plans, and then of course those same parent-teacher meetings and events. Vive la différence! I was a virtual stranger to my daughter’s educators; I was a regular installation for my son’s.
I began my teaching career before I had children. I loved learning about the theory of multiple intelligences and different learning styles and used this information regularly as a music teacher. This background in education and child development certainly helped in parenting as well. As a disability advocate now, I often run into parents who honestly don’t know that their children’s development is different than what it should b, because they are not in a field that requires that knowledge. Having a background in education helped me identify early on that our son was wired differently, and that all those big books about the stages of child development did not actually apply. I knew we were in foreign territory, and I knew that I didn’t know what to do.
Our son is a poster child for multiple intelligences and different learning styles. I am eternally grateful for all the educators who have worked hard over the years to figure out how to reach him, encourage him and recognize his strengths. As a parent and educator in the world of special needs, I know both how difficult this can be and how essential it is. Along with these wonderful teachers though, there is sadly also an equally long list of educators who did or still do not seem to have any patience or desire to work with someone who’s learning style was or is outside of their comfort zone. Some were downright abusive, some just impatient, most (of this list) just could not figure out what his story was.
Fast forward: Our son is working very hard to finish art school, where he is studying hand-drawn animation. Art school has been an amazing blessing for our son. He has learned so much, and the school has mostly put up with his very unique learning curve. No complaints. Well…. maybe just one.
Not a complaint actually, just a plaintive wish. I so wish that anyone interfacing with students, of any age, would have some understanding of invisible disabilities like Sensory Processing Disorder and autism. Though there are certainly many people with autism older than my son, he is of the “tsunami” generation, when the numbers of kids diagnosed with autism exploded from 1 in 10,000 in 1970 to 1 in 1,000 in 1995…and of course the explosion has continued, because now, (depending on which office of the CDC you listen to), the numbers are either 1 in 39 or 1 in 58. The statistics for Sensory Processing Disorder are even higher, 1 in 6. Autism is no longer rare. Sensory Processing Disorder is everywhere. Mental Health departments on college campuses are expanding beyond any recognition of the mostly unused offices that they were in my time.
So, educators of any age need to know what autism looks like, beyond the dry words of description in the book. When my son verbally expressed his excitement on the first day of the semester’s drawing class, he did so in a way that seemed odd and not age-appropriate to the neurotypical professor. He then leaned over to compliment another student’s work, and the professor saw someone who didn’t seem to understand personal space. And then he dropped his metal water bottle a few times. Apparently, he also didn’t understand that the class was supposed to stand in two lines to show their work at the end of the day, and he was pacing back and forth waiting. In short, he was exhibiting signs of autism, and using strategies to help him process the sensory overload at the end of the day. And at the end of this class, as instructed by the Learning Support Office, he handed the professor his letter of accommodation explaining about his disabilities.
I only know all of this because, despite the letter, the professor reported to the department chair that he didn’t know what to do with my son because he was disruptive, and I was called in to hear that my son was being put on probation for the entire semester. What is the nature of the probation? That he is not allowed to make any noise on campus.
I am definitely convinced that the professor is doing the best he can with what he knows. I do not think bad of him. A classroom is a public space and growing up we all figure out how to conform our personal expressions in public so as to be culturally appropriate. My son needs to learn what works around neurotypical people and what doesn’t. Ableism is still around big-time. So, I’m not complaining, I’m just repeating my plaintive wish: I so wish that anyone interfacing with students, of any age, would have some understanding of invisible disabilities like Sensory Processing Disorder and autism. And of course, why confine this wish to educators interfacing with students? I so wish that people everywhere would have some understanding of invisible disabilities like Sensory Processing Disorder and autism.
In Item 2 of Sec. 12101 of the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, it says:
(2) in enacting the ADA, Congress recognized that physical and mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society, but that people with physical or mental disabilities are frequently precluded from doing so because of prejudice, antiquated attitudes, or the failure to remove societal and institutional barriers;

 


Sigh.

https://tacanow.org/autism-statistics/
https://www.ucsf.edu/news/2013/07/107316/breakthrough-study-reveals-biological-basis-sensory-processing-disorders-kids

Standing At Sinai with Everyone…

I love spring. I love the warmth, the sense of new life, the sense of rebirth after the winter. But for families with kids with special needs, like mine, spring is also a time of unique challenges: lots of holidays full of potential for sensory overload; lots of end-of-the-school-year events; the school year routine changes, and summer, though optimally a time for relaxing, is often harder to negotiate even than the school year, simply because the day-to-day schedule is so different.

Spring is also a time of graduations, and new chapters for many young people. So for those of us who have children walking a different path, children who are not necessarily able to graduate and move on into new and “exciting” life chapters, it is also a bit of a mine-field socially: you are excited and happy for your friends’ kids, and you have to be adept at side-stepping the small talk at graduation parties when well-meaning acquaintances ask the regular questions: “So what are your kids up to? Where is s/he going to college? What did s/he graduate in? Does s/he have a job yet? Where is s/he going to be living after moving out?” Etc etc….

Some of you know me personally, so you know that I am a musician that wears many hats, and with one of my hats I use music to present about disability awareness and inclusion. Over the years that I have been presenting workshops and concerts, I have found myself curious about how different religious texts speak about inclusion, and I have sometimes reflected these teachings in songs. Most religious and cultural frameworks teach some form of the “golden rule”- to treat others the way one would like to be treated by others. Simple right?

As legend tells it, Rabbi Hillel, who is believed to have lived around 110 BCE – 10 CE, was asked to describe Judaism while standing on one leg, and he is purported to have said, “What is hateful to thee, do not unto thy fellow man: this is the whole Law; the rest is mere commentary, go and study.”

So, not only is it a simple rule, it’s also the most important one…but it doesn’t take much to recognize that our world is not currently functioning according to this teaching, (and maybe never did?) Certainly the judgement, disrespect and manipulative abuse of people with disabilities and special needs is only a small part of this issue.

I ask myself regularly, why can’t we just treat others the way we want to be treated? I think, quite frankly, that we all have contradictory messages in our heads. On one hand, we know that we should be tolerant and compassionate, and on the other hand, we often have subconscious fears of people who are deemed “different” than us in some ways. And when someone has a “disability” as that difference, there is a pushing away that accompanies the fear.

But where does this fear come from? Well, along with the ancient texts teaching compassion, there are also multiple texts that imply that to be different is bad.

The Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot is coming up. Shavu’ot takes place 50 days after Passover, and originally celebrated the first harvest of barley. Over the generations it has also come to be a celebration of the Jewish people receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. A saying in Jewish teaching is that we should always behave as though we ourselves were standing at Mt. Sinai on that day long ago, part of the crowd that was present and happily accepting the Torah as a guide for how to live.

But there is a legend, a Midrash, called, “The Miracle that Happened to the Israelites with Disabilities When the Torah Was Given.”

(Hebrew below.) The Midrash tells the following story:

Many of the Israelites present that day had disabilities, possibly as a result of the hard labor that they had been forced to do as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. Some of them had been hit by falling rocks that broke their hands and cut off their legs. Some of them had been blinded by being hit with something sharp while building the pyramids. Some of them had lost their hearing by….?

God saw this and said “It isn’t fitting that I will give my Torah to people with disabilities.” So, what did God do? God called to the angels to come and heal the people with disabilities.

And how do we know that they were healed? How do we know that there was no one there who was visually impaired? Because the Torah says that everyone could see the voices.
And how do we know that there was no one there who was deaf? Because the Torah says they heard God speaking.
And how do we know that there was no one there who was missing arms? Because the Torah says, “We shall do.”
And how do we know that there was no one there who was missing legs? Because the Torah says, “They stood at the foot of the mountain.”

Oh my. Perhaps whoever wrote this Midrash was someone who thought that it was a gift that the Israelites with disabilities had been healed, because they assumed that of course no one would want to have a disability. Today of course there would be a scathing argument about whether or not a disability should be healed. Let’s put that aside, because likely the intentions there were well-meaning.

But to say that God did not think it was fitting to give the Torah to those with disabilities? I don’t think so. I do think though that this attitude has made its way into our thinking, way down in the shadows, where we cannot see clearly. By reading these kinds of ancient texts we have a wonderful opportunity to bring these thoughts out of the shadows and examine them in the light of modern day thinking.

So here is my Midrash for those with disabilities who were standing at Mt. Sinai with the rest of the Jewish people, waiting to receive the Torah:

Many of the Israelites present that day had disabilities, possibly as a result of the hard labor that they had been forced to do as slaves under Pharaoh in Egypt. Some of them had been hit by falling rocks that broke their hands and cut off their legs. God saw this and said “How wonderful that my Torah will be given to all of my people. Regardless of one’s cognitive ability or physical state, the Torah shall be for everyone.”

And how do we know that even those who were visually impaired were present? Because the Torah says that everyone could see the voices.

And how do we know that even those who were deaf were there? Because the Torah says that the noise was so loud that everyone could hear.

And how do we know that even those missing arms were there? Because the Torah says that everyone will do what is needed.

And how do we know that even those missing legs were there? Because the Torah says that everyone stood at the foot of the mountain.

For this Shavu’ot, as we remember standing at Mt. Sinai, let us remember that we were all there, able bodied and not, ADD and not, Autism and not, with mental health challenges and not, etc…, and we received the Torah all together.
For this very reason, I wrote this song, Beyond The Golden Rule…the first Hebrew chorus reflects the original Torah “golden rule”, to “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but I do think we need to expand who it is we are willing to be compassionate towards, so the second Hebrew chorus says, “Love the one who is different as yourself.” And the third? “Love the stranger as yourself.”

 

 

הנס שנעשה לבעלי המום בעת מתן תורה

בשעת מתן תורה כשיצאו ישראל ממצרים היו בהן בעלי מומים מעבודת הפרך,
שהיו האבנים נופלות עליהם ושוברות את ידיהם וקוטעות את רגליהם. אמר הקב”ה,
אין זה מתאים שאתן את תורתי לבעלי מום. מה עשה? קרא למלאכי השרת,
שירדו ורפאו אותם.
ומנין שלא היו בהם עיוורים? שנאמר: וכל העם רואים את הקולות”.
ומנין שלא היו בהם חרשים? שאמרו: “נשמע”.
ומנין שלא היו בהם קטועי ידיים, גדמים? שאמרו: “נעשה”.
ומניין שלא היו בהם פסחים, נטולי רגלים מפני שנאמר: “ויתייצבו בתחתית ההר.”

Thanks-giving and Compassion-giving

Though our world and Western society are forever changing, and many people bemoan the loss of “the good old days,” the annual American tradition of Thanksgiving is coming, as it does every November in the United States. The name of the holiday serves its purpose well: to remind us to give thanks for our blessings. And in Judaism we have a wonderful “first thing in the morning” blessing of giving thanks every day… giving thanks that we woke up and can still breathe! It’s not something to be taken for granted at all … and it is easy for me to be thankful for the simple things in my life, the things that I might not pay attention to because they have always been here, such as air to breathe, water to drink, enough food to eat, clothes to wear, a roof over my head, warm clothes and a heated home in the cold season, a loving family…really I don’t actually need anything more than that, and I have so much more.

As a parent, I spent lots of years trying to teach my now young-adult children to have the perspective to be able to recognize the blessings in their own lives, to recognize that “there but for fortune” (to coin an old Phil Ochs song) their lives could be far less comfortable, and though perhaps their circumstances are less than Hollywood fantasy movie-ish, they have so much to be thankful for. Both have definitely grown to understand that, but…my youngest struggles on a daily basis to maneuver the world with autism, Sensory Processing Disorder, anxiety and severe learning challenges.

While he definitely has much to be thankful for, and certainly “there but for fortune” he would not be where he is today, it is also very true that the world he walks through is not at all the same world that I walk through. He often says to me, “You have no idea what it is like to be me.” This sentence became the title of a song that I wrote in an attempt to explain Sensory Processing Disorder to teachers and community members who do not understand the seemingly pointless melt-downs that happen in public for so many children and young adults these days.

Having a son with autism has taught me compassion on a very deep level. I do think that as a young adult I suffered from “ableist” arrogance: I was very capable academically, I could play music and sing, I could run and do athletics, I could speak and hold my own in intellectual small talk and crowd banter, I could walk through the streets of Jerusalem (my home in my twenties) and pay attention to everything that was happening, but then turn all of that stimulation off and relax at home once I got there. None of these daily activities ever crossed my mind as something that everyone couldn’t do, as something to be thankful for. In retrospect I realize how very naïve I was of course.

My son is a kinesthetic learner, and excels at his passion, drawing and animation. He is also a talented singer. But that is where the overlap between his skills and the skills I had at his age end. He struggles to retain facts taught in academic classes. He says his brain literally hurts when he is trying to memorize details. He cannot run or coordinate his body well. He cannot follow small talk on any level; growing up in an intellectual Jewish home has made him far more insecure in this area than had he grown up in a home with people who were less talkative. But more than anything, walking through the streets of Columbus, Ohio, where we live now, is one long string of stressors and fears.

Ableism and othering go hand in hand. Having been thrust into the world of special needs by virtue of my son, I have been given the gift of needing to understand the world through eyes that do not see what I see. Ableism is a word that has been coined to refer to how much of western society is structured, under the assumption that everyone has the same physical abilities, and that if you have a “disability” you are inferior. Othering is when you choose to differentiate between those you think are similar to you, in whatever way you are choosing to define yourself, and others who are different and therefore not part of your “group.” We live in a time where othering is rampant and dangerous and very much in the spotlight. Ableism is much more subtle, especially in the case of autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, which are conditions that are often invisible to the external eye.

I know that my son suffers from Sensory Processing Disorder and I can often help him through overload. But what about the person on the street who is clearly having a hard time, perhaps a person on the street who does not like my bumper stickers or my political pins? I don’t know that person, but I think it is fair to say, just as my son says to me, that I have no idea what it is like to be them.

So, at this time of Thanksgiving, I am consciously saying thanks for the many blessings in my life, from the mundane to the more complex. I am also reminding myself never to assume what someone else should be thankful for, never to assume that I have any clue what someone else’s life challenges are. I am asking all of us, whoever we are, to practice a little understanding and perspective and tolerance as we enter the darkest time (season?)of the year…to bring the light of compassion and stop the practice of othering. Because, I/you have no idea what it is like to be them…

Autism Awareness, Passover, Easter and Miracles?

This year, as occasionally happens, Passover and Easter are both on the same weekend.  Passover starts on Friday night, March 30, and Easter is on Sunday, April 1.  While each holiday is celebrated by different religions of course, both holidays focus on historical events, and both holidays tell of miracles, miracles that are central to the narrative of each holiday.  (Yes, I know that there are disagreements amongst historians about whether or not the events relayed in each of these holidays actually happened, but I contend that even if the facts are not exactly the same as the religious stories, the symbolism is helpful!)

So what is a miracle?  The first definition usually involves divine intervention:  A surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.  The second definition is more how I tend to use the word:  A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.  These second kind of miracles happen every day, but sometimes we have to change our perspective in order to notice them.

Growing up Jewish, the miracle of Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, always captivated me.  The Passover story, with the Hebrews enslaved for generations, an abusive, disrespectful Pharaoh, Moses as a hesitant and unwilling but eminently capable leader, negotiations that continually flip-flopped as to the outcome of the Hebrews’ release, and then that climactic ending of the sea parting as Pharaoh and his army were bearing down on the fleeing Hebrew slaves, was an extremely powerful metaphor for me throughout my childhood.  So much of my adult attitude to life can be tied to that story: don’t believe you are what others may be trying to make you (a slave), don’t be convinced you deserve abuse even if that’s all a figure of authority is dishing out (got a Pharaoh in your life?), don’t think you can’t be an effective mover and changer even if you’ve never done something before (Moses stuttered and still was the right person for the job of the chief negotiator),  don’t take no for an answer when freedom and justice are the issue at stake (those in power don’t always want change, to say the least), don’t despair regardless of how bad circumstances look, don’t give up, and don’t believe that what looks like a wall can’t move and change, because after all, who would ever think that the water could part to allow the Hebrews leaving Egypt on foot to escape the Pharaoh’s armies with their horses and chariots.  Totally a story of the underdogs winning in the long run.  Of course, this is only one chapter in the long history of the Jewish people, and not all the chapters have positive endings, but this particular chapter ends with a great deal of hope.

As I am not Christian, I am not as intimately familiar with the Easter story, but I do know that the sense of hope, the sense of miracle, the sense that sometimes events happen that are “highly improbable and extraordinary” that permeates the Passover story is also paralleled in the Easter story with Jesus rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.

And what does all of this have to do with the world of autism?  As a mother of a child with autism, I spent many years praying for a miracle, and every year, these holidays make me reflect back on the desire for that miracle.  At first, I prayed that one day my son would just miraculously wake up and feel better, that his dis-ease in the world would just be a temporary thing that we could chalk up to a rough beginning.  When that didn’t pan out, I prayed for a cure.  While there are certainly families that have tried numerous medical and health interventions that we haven’t tried, we did chase lots of different therapies down in our hope for a miraculous cure.  None did the trick, but one very smart practitioner said to me, “You are looking for one key.  There isn’t one key to unlock everything, but everything that you are doing will help a bit.”  While that perspective was helpful in some ways, I noticed that I had now expanded my desire from wanting just one miracle, to wanting all of the miracles that would help.  Through the years, in speaking with other families in the world of autism, I discovered that my desire for a miracle was not unusual….

I don’t even remember at what point I stopped looking for a miracle.  My son is now 23.  He is a talented artist.  He still struggles with a lot of things, but he has also far exceeded the fears that were propelling my need for a miracle.  And he personifies the story of Passover, those same qualities that I gleaned growing up are his daily fare:  don’t believe you are what others may be trying to make you (a label, someone who is limited, someone who is disabled), don’t be convinced you deserve abuse even if that’s all a figure of authority is dishing out (despite a stream of bad experiences with impatient and teachers who could not understand him, he continues to love to learn), don’t think you can’t be an effective mover and changer even if you’ve never done something before (every new life requirement is scary, but he never lets his disability stop him from tackling the new challenges, despite the anxiety and the self-doubt),  don’t take no for an answer when freedom and justice are the issue at stake (he has unfortunately endured many false accusations, and has had to learn to self-advocate under some really unpleasant situations), don’t despair regardless of how bad circumstances look (sometimes those due dates for assignments just pile up, but he has learned to take a deep breath and keep moving), don’t give up (I have endless awe at his ability to get up each day and go back into the world, no matter how hard the day before was), and don’t believe that what looks like a wall can’t move and change (this is probably the definition of his life!)

So, maybe, when I consider miracles as “highly improbable or extraordinary events, developments, or accomplishments that bring very welcome consequences” I realize that we have been living a life of ongoing tiny miracles.  The autism is not gone, that miracle did not happen, but perhaps the Passover miracles did?  Sometimes the water parts in metaphorical ways!  This song is called Miracles Happen.

 

 

Jewish Folk Tale: The Shepherd and His Flute

February has been designated as JDAIM, the Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month.  I have long mused how traditional Jewish folk tales and folk songs are rich with messages about inclusion, tolerance and refraining from judgement of another.  Clearly our ancestors knew that  there was room for all kinds of people in any community.  This is one of my favorite old stories.  It is here both in text and in a recording.  The recording includes a special treat that cannot be conveyed in the written piece!  Enjoy 🙂  The story can be heard online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pJ1ASMzut4

The Shepherd and His Flute – A tale of the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, 1698 –1760, Ukraine) – retold by Joanie Calem

Long ago, in a small shtetl in what is now Ukraine, where the famous Rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov lived, also lived a family of scholars.  The father of the family, Moshe, was the son and grandson of very respected Rabbis, and he himself was a well-respected teacher of Torah and Talmud.  And the mother, Rachel, was the daughter and granddaughter of very respected Rabbis.  Though many women of her time did not know how to read Hebrew or study the Torah, Rachel did, and she would read and study along with her husband at home.  Their home was always full of joy, full of learning, full of conversation, full of exploration, full of consideration of life and how best to live it.

Moshe and Rachel were blessed with five sons, and together they taught their sons the treasures of Torah.  When their eldest, Meir, was six years old, it was time to go to Cheder, to learn to read and write.  He said goodbye to his parents and his younger brothers, and he excitedly went off to school, eager to learn.  It was obvious right from the first day that he too would be a brilliant scholar.  He was a quick learner, and soon was able to assist the Rabbi in teaching the other boys.

Next came time for the second son, Menachem, to join his older brother in Cheder.  He too said goodbye to his parents and younger brothers, and happily joined his older brother in Cheder.  Sure enough, just as everyone expected, he was just as sharp a student as his older brother and his parents and grandparents and great grandparents.

Soon, the third son, Shmuel, was old enough to join his brothers in the Cheder.  Shmuel was a wonderful, sweet boy.  But his parents had a suspicion that he would not have the same experience in Cheder that his older brothers did.  And sure enough, as obvious as it had been that Meir and Menachem were going to grow to be brilliant scholars, it was quickly clear that Shmuel would not.  He wasn’t like his brothers: he couldn’t sit, he couldn’t learn his letters, he didn’t seem to be paying attention the way the other boys did, and he often would get up and walk over to the window, staring longingly outside at the trees and the fields and the clouds.

So Moshe and Rachel and the Cheder’s teacher realized that Cheder was not the place for Shmuel to learn and thrive and grow.  They didn’t know what to do, because all of the boys of the shtetl went to Cheder, and everyone in their family had always gone to Cheder.  But the solution came clear very quickly:  early in the morning, every day, the shtetl shepherd would come by to collect the community’s sheep and goats and cattle to take them out to the meadows and pastures around the village for the day, and then bring them back every evening.  Though Moshe and Rachel had never noticed before, Shmuel had a special friendship with the shepherd, and used to rise early every morning just to greet the man, and walk with him a bit.  Moshe and Rachel asked the shepherd if Shmuel could be his apprentice, and the shepherd was thrilled to have the young boy’s company and help.  And so , unlike his brothers and his cousins and everyone else in his family, Shmuel did not go to Cheder.  Instead, he spent every day in the fields and meadows learning how to be a shepherd.  Shmuel was thrilled.  He loved the animals, he loved being outdoors, he loved being with the shepherd, and he loved learning how to play the flute, which the shepherd taught him as they sat for many hours every day with the flocks of animals.  Shmuel always felt that he was praying as he played his flute.

In time, the two youngest brothers, Simcha and Yitzchak, were also old enough to go to Cheder, and they joined their oldest brothers, and showed that they too would soon be star scholars.  Moshe and Rachel were proud of all of their sons in Cheder, and of course loved Shmuel dearly, but worried about him in a way that they did not worry about the other four boys.

As each of the boys grew, they reached Bar Mitzvah age, and Meir, Menachem, simcha and Yitzchak all led the prayers of the congregation on their respective Bar Mitzvahs beautifully.  Shmuel did not, but instead quietly celebrated his Bar Mitzvah playing his flute in the fields.  For him, playing the flute was praying.  He always felt that he was talking with God as he played his quiet tunes.

When Shmuel was about fourteen, the old shepherd decided that it was time for him to stop going to the fields with the flocks, and Shmuel became the official shepherd for the village.  It was bitter-sweet of course for Moshe and Rachel, they were proud of their son, but it was never what they would have dreamed for one of their children.

Now, all of these years, there were two days every year when Shmuel would not take the flocks to the fields, on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.  On th.ose days, he would join his grandfathers, his father and his brothers in the synagogue, where everyone would gather to join the Baal Shem Tov in the holiday prayers.  Every year Shmuel sat quietly, unable to speak the words of the prayers, unable to read.  He loved the melodies of the community praying around him, but as the years passed, he felt sad that he couldn’t join in.

One year on Rosh HaShanah, Shmuel was sitting with his family as usual, in the midst of the prayers, and he happened to look up at the Baal Shem Tov.  As the prayers were being sung all around him, Shmuel again longed to join in.  He noticed that the Baal Shem Tov seemed to look concerned.  Shmuel sat and wondered what he could do to add his voice to the prayers of the community.  His hand went to his flute in his pocket, and at once it was obvious how he could join in.  He pulled out his flute and began to play a beautiful melody that wove harmoniously with the prayers of the congregation.  He played with all of his heart and all of his soul, so happy to finally have found a way to participate in the community.

But the community stopped their praying, and a sound of shock and horror went through the room.  Suddenly, men were shouting at Shmuel to stop, shouting at Moshe, Shmuel’s father to stop him, shouting at the Baal Shem Tov to stop him.  Moshe rose to reach out and grab Shmuel’s flute, but the Baal Shem Tov reached them first, and, putting his hands on both Moshe and Shmuel’s shoulders, the Baal Shem Tov said, “Finally, our prayers will truly reach Heaven as a full community, because Shmuel has joined us with his pure love, joy and devotion.  We needed his voice in order for God to hear all of us.  This is how he prays, and though it is different than our prayers, it is wonderful.”

The rest of the congregation bowed their heads, acknowledged their mistake, breathed deeply to accept this new idea, and after a few minutes, returned to their prayers, letting their melodies intertwine with Shmuel’s flute.

“First Day Butterflies” or “First Day Angry Dragons” in Your Belly?

Young people all over the northern hemisphere are starting back to school at this time. Locally, some school systems started last week, some this week, some next week. My 22-year-old son, who has autism, is going back to his third year at art school….and feeling anxious about the new beginning, to say the least.

This morning, I received a notice from the blog published by the Children’s Music Network (https://childrensmusic.org/), about a sweet song that my friend Dorothy Cresswell had written, called “First Day Butterflies.” http://blog.cmnonline.org/2017/08/22/first-day-butterflies-by-dorothy-cresswell-on-tuneful-tuesdays/

I was so touched by Dorothy’s song and the stories of how she would greet her new students on the first day of school that I found myself with tears in my eyes. And I stopped to wonder why I was having that response. As I was wondering, my son came dragging into my office, breathing heavily, a look of deep sadness on his face. Ah, of course, I thought to myself, this is why: he doesn’t have “first day butterflies,” he has “first day angry dragons” that are raging around in his belly. And they don’t flare up just the day before the first day of school, they flare up anywhere between a week to three months in advance. Would that there was someone like Dorothy greeting returning college students to campus on the first day back to classes each semester.

Every new beginning brings on a fresh wave of anxiety for many people with autism. No matter how many times my son has done something, no matter how familiar the place is – getting there again, starting something again, walking into a room with other people AGAIN, still brings on waves of anxiety.

I am in awe of the courage he must muster every day to get up and go out and face the world again. Negotiating the vagaries of social interaction is exhausting for him. He tries and tries to get it right, and so often is shunned and excluded because he just doesn’t hit the culturally accepted mark of social interaction. Though he regularly reviews what the “right” thing to do is before he leaves the house, when he is out in the world trying to function, he often gets flustered and confused and his responses come out messy. And people are not very forgiving it seems when someone comes across as odd.

Anxiety is a huge part of both Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism. When your senses are not reliably delivering information to your brain, you feel very unsure of the world. As you get older, you hopefully develop some strategies and some experiences that let you know that all will be well in the long run. But unfortunately, for my son, all isn’t always well, and the confusion of trying to manage social interactions when you haven’t had a lot of success in the past just exacerbates the anxiety.

Current statistics place Sensory Processing Disorder as affecting one out of six school age children in North America, and it is probably similar numbers in other parts of the world. That is a lot of people who are struggling to handle the world with “angry dragons” in their bellies. I always thought butterflies in my belly were bad enough, but I know that the intensity that my son experiences is far harsher than any kind of “first day butterflies” that I ever did.

So to all of the educators out there, thank you so much to those of you who know how to help children over their “first day butterflies.” Let’s all be aware that some people have “first day angry dragons,” and let’s be kind, patient and tolerant when someone’s responses are a little different. Perhaps they are in the midst of battling a dragon.

 

In Honor of Autism Moms: Motherhood

It happens regularly: I am performing for a group of families, singing and dancing and genuinely having a great time with everyone. The room is full of children’s laughter and song and unabashed joy. Wow, I think, I have the best job in the world, playing music and making people happy.

And then there’s always one kid, with a very tight look in his/her eyes, who just seems to be on a different wave-length, not quite noticing other people’s space, not quite noticing his mom’s pinched face, not thrilled with the number of times she comes over to stop him from somersaulting off of a chair, or doing handstands in the chair, or twirling around so enthusiastically that he smashes into a little girl who was busy dancing as well. Not able to sit still, not able to find a comfortable place in the room, not quite at home in his skin…

The poor mom, I think. How can I let her know that I get it, that I see, that I know that he has Autism, that I know what life is like at home, that I know how much she wants him to have fun but how scared she is, maybe even terrified, that he will hurt someone unintentionally? I want to give her a hug, stop the music, just let her know that I for one am never going to judge her or her kid, because I have been there so many times. I do catch her eye as she careens past me to catch him before he dive bombs off of the chair, and I whisper mid-song, “It’s ok, he can move, he’s responding to the music and it’s fine.” And I do honestly mean that, because I notice how he actually is making sure that he isn’t near anyone else after he nearly knocked that other little girl over. And he is very engaged in my songs, asking me questions at appropriate moments before he dances off again.

But the poor mom. She just looks exhausted as she gives me a quick smile on the verge of tears. Is that what I looked like when my kids were younger, I wonder? I know that was what I felt like for so many years. That mixture of desire for my kid to experience the ease of childhood that other children seemed to have that eluded him on the one hand, with the terror that he would do something inappropriate, odd, and draw attention to himself and hurt someone else on the other hand. The desire to just be able to take him to the same events that other people’s kids went to, that my other kid could go to on the one hand, mixed with the fear that something was terribly amiss with my kid on the other hand. The frustration of not understanding why simple things seemed to send him into overdrive while the other kids could continue at play.

Motherhood (and fatherhood for dads as well I am sure) is a journey for everyone, no doubt. All children have their ups and downs, all children have times of more or less need, and all parents have the same. But Autism moms have a journey that is just a little different than the experience of mothering a neurotypical kid.

I have one of each…one neurotypical child, one with Autism. When our son started high school at the school our daughter had just graduated from, I told the staff that they really needed to work with us as though we were a family that they had never met, because how we parented our daughter vs. how we parented our son made it look as though there were two different sets of parents involved. In her four years at school, we were there for parent-teacher conferences and celebrations. In his four years, we were often writing daily emails, in and out of the school weekly, on the phone a few times a month. They got to know us quite well! In college, we went with her to accompany her at the beginning of freshman year, to pick her up at the end, and then for a few plays and graduation. He is in his second year at Art School, and we have already had three meetings with the Dean…. learned about policies that I never knew existed, etc.

We have many friends who no longer stay in touch with us. Might not be anything to do with being Autism parents, but on the other hand, these same friends would often comment on how intense we had become, how we seemed to have lost our zest for life, how we were really a little too involved in the parenting thing, how we were too overbearing in how we were raising our son. There wasn’t much I could say, except quietly acknowledge that they probably would never understand because they would never have to walk in my shoes. They probably didn’t know what it was like not to sleep through the night until he was six, or how just getting out of the house with everyone in one piece could be a massive energy-drain, or how every day was one of waiting for the meltdown to happen, or how a new MD would wonder why you showed signs of PTSD but had never been in active combat, or….or….or….If you have a child with Autism, you will likely have your own examples!

I can’t usually stop a performance to tell a mom that I recognize as an Autism mom that I get it and give her a hug. I also never know if her kid is diagnosed, if she would welcome the recognition, or if she is still fighting to keep that diagnosis at bay. I don’t know if I would make her feel good or devastated. I can of course just give her a smile and a hug in recognition of all that she is doing, without any specific reference to Autism, and that I do on a regular basis.

Here’s to the Autism moms and moms of kids who are the non-conformers, who don’t fit the expected molds. We are a fierce and loving bunch. We are the mama bears. We will not let someone dis our kid on the one hand, but on the other hand we work hard to keep our kids moving forward out in public. We know that society’s judgments are unfair on one hand, but we want our kids to be able to handle being in public on the other hand. We want our kids to grow up to find their way in the world, just like every mother, and we have discovered that in order for that to happen our kid might need a little different kind of parenting than the neighbor kid next door.

Here’s a virtual hug to that mom at today’s performance. And here’s a song called, “Motherhood.” A little late for Mothers’ Day, but better late than never J. This is for all moms everywhere, with a special hug for Autism moms.

Is It A Good Thing, Is It A Bad Thing?

I have often said that the most significant day of my life was the day that I heard the story of The Horse. The story’s premise is that it is pointless to judge events as good or bad, because what often looks good can lead to bad and vice versa, what looks bad often leads to good. The day I heard the story was the day I began to transition from childhood to adulthood, when I began to understand the difference between black/white thinking and an understanding of gray, of nuance, that there are events and relationships that won’t necessarily be resolved and totally clear in the time frame that I want. This story has influenced my approach to my art, to my career, to my relationships, to my parenting, to my understanding of politics and world events. It has also made me continually curious to see how one thing leads to another!

I was about 20 when I first heard the story, on a sunny winter day in Jerusalem, Israel, sitting in an olive grove with a group of Israeli and Palestinian friends. The storyteller was an older woman, a Holocaust survivor, Re’uma, a name she gave herself after the war. Her name means, “see the wonder.” Re’uma had been a teenager in one of the camps. She had lost her entire family, and was on her own in the camp, looked after by lots of other prisoners. An elderly Rabbi, an adopted grandfather, told her this story one day, and she related to us all those years later that it changed her life. She credits this story with her ability to survive the camps, not physically, but emotionally and psychically.

The story changed my life as well. As cliché as it sounds, I remember the light bulb going “ping!” I remember looking around at the group of us sitting there, all friends dreaming about a Middle East solution that would bring peace to the region and it’s people. I remember taking a deep breath, and recognizing that the road would be long, that there would be events that would look really bad on certain days, but that those same “bad” events would lead to new events, and that eventually we would find our way to something better. (This was some 30 odd years ago, and the Middle East conflict was actually a little LESS complicated than it is now…but I still have hope!)

This is truly a concept that I think of nearly every moment of the day. Knowing that what I judge as bad may just be the doorway to something wonderful has been able to keep me going in every aspect of my life. In my parenting, I have to apply this equally in my relationship to my neuro-typical child and my child with autism.  In my professional life, there are always setbacks and then times when everything just seems to be clicking. And I’m sure the connection of this story to our current world state is clear to everyone reading this!

It often feels to me that people in the West are brainwashed into thinking that all days should be good ones, that life should be full of only pleasant events. It seems like people believe that having everything they want is their right, the way it is supposed to be, and that bad events are something to be ashamed of, something to be fought against. But we all know that life just isn’t like that, we’ve got good days and bad days. There isn’t a way to avoid the “bad” days, but there is a way to just roll with them, not fret about them, not add extra tension to an already bad day by being upset that the day isn’t going the way you want it to. It’s really hard to pretend that everything is fine when it isn’t!

When my kids were younger and would complain that they were in a bad mood, I would usually say, “That’s fine, you are totally entitled to be in a bad mood, but you still have to be civil to everyone around you. (Which is what I would like to share with various political leaders.) You don’t have to feel good to be kind. And just because you are having a bad day doesn’t mean that you get to pass that bad day on. But you are allowed to have that bad day.”

I am now at the stage of life where I am attempting to help my kids learn how to negotiate the professional world. There are so many things in the “professional” world that are truly hard to handle: racism, bigotry, greed, misogyny, manipulation for personal gain, backstabbing, and ego vs. teamwork, etc. etc. There are so many things in the “autism” world that are truly hard to handle: sensory meltdowns, family stress, being ostracized by the misunderstanding of surrounding people, coping with being different, being bullied, being labeled, being treated with condescension, being judged, etc. etc.

Teaching children resilience in the face of unpleasant events is crucial for any parent, but even more so for a child with special needs who’s starting point is one with so many more challenges than a NT individual. And guiding a young adult with autism into the professional world, where people aren’t always nice and don’t always have your best interests in mind is just one more training in the ways of the world.

I never saw the story The Horse printed until I wrote a song using the story, and went in search to see if it actually was a folk tale or if Re’uma had made it up. I discovered there is a version of the story in the children’s book, Zen Shorts by Jon J Muth, and in the picture book, The Lost Horse: A Chinese Folktale by Ed Young, in addition to many online retellings. I use this song regularly in my work with audiences of all ages starting from kindergarten-aged children.

Enjoy…. is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? We gotta wait and see what life will bring.

 

Banu Hoshech Ligaresh/We Have Come to Oust the Dark

It’s dark outside these days in the northern hemisphere. No wonder that so many cultures and religions have winter holidays that celebrate with light. Diwali, the Hindu winter holiday, Hanukah, the Jewish holiday of lights, Solstice, celebrating the longest night and the return to light, Christmas, Kwanzaa, the African American winter holiday of community, and Chinese New Year, celebrated with lanterns and dragons breathing fire.

And of course, world events and politics seem to be reflecting that light/dark conundrum as well. Here in the US, people who are unhappy about the incoming administration are feeling that the world the way we have known it is coming to an end and we are entering another period of dark ages.  People who are happy about the incoming administration are feeling that they are finally going to see the light again after eight years of their agenda being ignored.  All around the world, there seems to be a fight between the forces of dark and the forces of light, but sometimes, like in Syria, it’s not even clear who is who since both sides seem to be perpetrating acts of darkness.

So what would be an act of light vs. an act of darkness? So many years of philosophy and ethics have debated this question, but in my little world, I work by a simple answer: an act of darkness is an act that harms another, while an act of light is an act that helps another heal. Of course real life is complex and it always seems like actions cannot possibly boil down to something that simple. So often the phrase “the end justifies the means” is used to explain everything from world politics to parenting to the use of pesticides and genetically modified seeds in agriculture to vaccinations to classroom educational policies to congress to the war on terror to how one teaches a child with autism to be in the world, etc….Personally, I question if a harmful means ever leads to a healthy end? I am sure I have friends who can cite me a list of examples from history, but ongoing world events make me more and more suspicious of actions that are harmful at the outset, and seem to lead to more harm with a snowball effect in world events.

I named my new project of disability awareness concert-conversations “But First Do No Harm” because that is what guides me when I am awake and conscious in my actions. That is what guides my parenting and my teaching and my performing when I am moving at the right pace to really think about what I am doing. That phrase complements the light/dark dichotomy: am I hurting this other individual, or am I helping this person heal? My world of autism parenting provides me daily, sometimes even momentary, opportunities to answer that question!

One of my favorite Hanukah songs is a song written in the late 1950s by an Israeli kindergarten teacher, dancer, composer and actor, Sara Levi-Tanai. It ties in with the Jewish book of ethics, Pirkei Avot, known as The Ethics of the Fathers (and the mothers I would add,) where it says: “In a place where no one is behaving humanely, try to be humane.” The song, though sung at Hanukah, is applicable all year round, saying, “We have come to oust the dark, in our hands the light and spark. Each of us is one small light, and together we shine bright. Go away deepest, darkest night. Go away, give way to the light. Go away deepest, darkest night. Go away, give way to the light.”

May we all shine the light for each other during these challenging times. And may we remember that shining the light in someone’s eyes really doesn’t help…it insures that they can’t see anything and causes them pain, and to feel fearful and angry. But holding the light up high, so that we can all see the way forward, doesn’t blind anyone, and eases the fear of each other, the unknown, and the dark.

Happy Holidays everyone. This song, Banu Hoshech Ligaresh, is from my 2009 CD, Shanah Tovah, Shanah M’tukah (A Good Year, A Sweet Year). May we all shine the light for each other during these challenging times.