Is Addressing “The Elephant In The Room” a “Social-Interaction Difficulty?”

Google the “signs of autism” and the very first thing that pops up on most of the lists is, “social-interaction difficulties.” As I have had the privilege to live in different cultures, and as culture determines what kind of social interactions are deemed appropriate, I’ve long wondered about how hard and fast this determination of autism can be, since social rules vary greatly from culture to culture. This was extremely apparent when we arrived in this country in 1998 when my son was 3. While I am not disputing that my son has “social-interaction difficulties,” the habits that he had that were inevitably identified as social issues were actually cross-cultural issues.

He was born in Israel, where culture, and therefore social norms, has certain obvious differences from mainstream American culture. For one thing, people in the Middle East are more emotionally expressive than in the US. When you greet someone who you know and like, you hold their arms and kiss them on both cheeks. So this is how my son learned to say hello. That was immediately flagged by early therapists as a “social-interaction difficulty.” I tried to explain that he was just being friendly in the way that he had seen people be friendly…no go.

The list goes on and on…he was too animated when he spoke, he was too physical when he played, he stood too close to people. All true, but only a display of “social-interaction difficulties” in the West…none of those things ever stood out as problematic when we visited back in Israel. Different cultures have different rules. (Autism, as a culture, has different social rules too, but I’ll leave that thought for a different blog.)

Another way his “social interaction difficulties” have always expressed themselves have been through his tendency to talk freely about the “elephant in the room,” whatever the elephant happened to be on a particular day. I always felt like he had a radar sense when something unspoken was going on in a room. Therapists always felt that he was woefully unaware of socially acceptable conversation.

One thing I have learned from raising my children was that so many things in life are a case of and/and, not either/or. Yes it is important to think before we speak, yes it is important to consider other people’s feelings, and yes, often it is really helpful to be the one to be able to point out the elephant in the room. The act of stating the elephant in the room is not a “social-interaction difficulty” in and of itself. The sensitivity involved in social interaction and mature communication takes a lot of thought, and one needs to figure out whether or not each particular elephant should be pointed out, or not.

As we all know, we are currently living through one of the most bizarre presidential elections in American history. One candidate prides himself on saying whatever he feels like. He scorns “political correctness” and doesn’t seem to care who he hurts. Perhaps he thinks that he is doing a good thing by talking about all of the elephants in the room that he thinks no one else is mentioning. On the other hand, perhaps he never learned the lesson, which should precede talking about the elephant: that of thinking before we speak and considering other people’s feelings.

Educators and researchers have written numerous articles over the course of this campaign season about the effect this type of discourse has had on school children, and have watched in horror at what seems to be an uptick in incidents of bullying, racism and hate-speech in schools. Others have reported that people who have been bullied and abused in their life feel traumatized anew in watching a presidential candidate behave this way.

My son was badly bullied throughout his school years. In his inimitable manner of pointing out the elephant in the current room, he left me this voice message yesterday as he was on his way to college for the day: “Mom. I just want to tell you that I am really tired about Trump. He reminds me of all of those people that bullied me a long time ago. I know that I shouldn’t hold on to those memories, but it’s hard to let go, Mom, it’s hard to let everything go when something hurts you. Especially because he is a bully, it makes me remember being bullied and it really hurts. I’m sorry Mom; it’s just hard to hear things about Trump. I hope he doesn’t win Mom, because bullies shouldn’t win.”

That would be a case, in my humble opinion, of just one of the many elephants in the current room that should be addressed. Long live my son’s ability to name the elephant in the room. Because thankfully, he has come a long way in learning how to think before he speaks and consider other people’s feelings. In his case, naming the elephant in the room can no longer be considered a “social-interaction difficulty.”

 

Enjoy this song! Please tell me your thoughts!

Yom Kippur – A Day To Assess How We Relate to Others, Or, Don’t Judge!

Last night was the beginning of the observance of the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when we traditionally ask for forgiveness from those we feel we have wronged.

Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, always falls 10 days before Yom Kippur, and the New Year is a time of self-reflection about one’s own behavior through the past year, and how we might like to work to improve things.  Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is a time to reach out and try and clear up misunderstandings with those in our world.  It is a time to acknowledge the mistakes we have made in our relationships with people near and far, and apologize for hurts that we may have caused.  (The parallels to the current election season and the endless list of wrongs NOT being apologized for cannot be ignored of course.)

So, at Rosh HaShanah, we think of how we want to repair our relationship with ourselves, and at Yom Kippur, we think of how we want to repair our relationships with others.

At the afternoon service of Yom Kippur, we traditionally read the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet.  Jonah was asked to go tell the Ninevites that they needed to change their ways, but he didn’t like the Ninevites.  He had already judged them and decided that they weren’t worth saving.   Jonah believed that he had legitimate reasons for not liking the Ninevites, after all, they were enemies of his people, the Jews.  Yet, to his actual distress, they heeded his words and changed their ways.  They also proved to him that his judgement was unfounded.  He still didn’t like them, but eventually he came to respect God’s reasoning for saving the Ninevites. One would hope, though the story ends so we don’t actually know, that Jonah then changed HIS ways and became more compassionate because of the lesson he learned.

This is one of the main reminders that I “get” annually from Yom Kippur: not to judge others.   Maybe I do not actually know what is happening in another person’s world, or why they are behaving the way they are.  Maybe I don’t see the whole picture, so I cannot understand their behavior.  Yom Kippur is a reminder that I want to treat others the way I would like to be treated, that golden rule of so many cultures and one of the basic tenets of Judaism.

But what about all these people that make us uncomfortable, like Jonah felt towards the Ninevites?  Maybe we don’t see the whole picture?  Maybe they have an invisible disability, like autism, or anxiety, or depression?  Maybe they have a sensory processing disorder, and the tension and discomfort that we feel from them is because they are trying valiantly to keep it together in a confusing world?

Yom Kippur also reminds me of the story of the 36 Righteous Angels, or the “Lamedvavniks”, the Yiddish term for this phenomenon.  This is an old Jewish legend, which tells that a “spark” of righteousness is always inhabiting 36 people around the world at any time.  It doesn’t stay in any one person permanently, but rather travels from person to person as needed.  But the person who currently contains that spark also doesn’t know that they are a “lamedvavnik.”  The saying goes, if you think you are one of the lamedvavniks, you definitely are not, but just because you don’t think you are one, doesn’t mean you aren’t!

Perhaps that person who is making us uncomfortable is one of the lamedvavniks?  Perhaps they are currently helping keep our world from going over the precipice, and we all know they have a heck of a job right now!

Since we never know who contains the spark of righteousness, we could potentially treat everyone as though they are a lamedvavnik, because they might be!  How different our world might be if we were all carefully respecting each other.

People with disabilities suffer from constant bullying and teasing, often because they are socially uncomfortable.  Many adults with invisible disabilities struggle to keep employment, despite laws supposedly protecting them.  But maybe one of them is a lamedvavnik?  Maybe if we tried just a little bit more we could find a way to include them rather than exclude them….

Here is my song about the Lamedvavniks.  May we all treat each other with respect, kindness, compassion and tolerance this year and always.  Certainly, as the odds go, many people we know will be carrying that spark of righteousness at some point during this year….

 

 

 

 

Shanah Tovah U’Metukah – Questions for the New Year

Tonight is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, 5777In the Jewish tradition, the new year is both a time of joy and a time of introspection, a time to reflect on what we have done with our lives in the past year, acknowledge areas where we have fallen short of how we would have liked to behave, and ask ourselves questions about what we want to contribute to our world and life in the coming year.  All of this is part of doing heshbon hanefesh (חשבון הנפש), an accounting of our soul.

Naturally, we all have different expectations of ourselves, and different ways of interacting with the world.  Part of my own process of becoming a parent, 25 years ago, was having to recognize that my children would not be carbon copies of me, would have different standards and expectations for themselves, different ways of finding their way in the world.  My job would be to guide and accompany, but not to require my children to mold or conform to my world view.  Over my years of parenting that has proven to be a tad more demanding and personally challenging than I oh so glibly and philosophically thought when I first happily became pregnant!

I find that one of the most fascinating aspects to parenting has been the questions that my children have asked, and as I wear the double hat of being both a parent to my own children and a teacher to others’ children, I have had the pleasure of also fielding many other children’s questions over the years.  The questions that we ask ourselves, or that we ask our mentors/teachers/parents, are windows into our soul. So the questions that my children ask always give/gave me a clue to what is happening in their souls, what is engaging them, what is worrying them, what is occupying their hearts?

On the eve of this new year, I reflect that we live in a time of many questions!  This is election season here in the US, and what a season it is.  Full of questions!  What kind of country do we want this to be?  One of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance, flexibility, welcome?  A country that acknowledges that we don’t all have to be the same?  That we can simultaneously accept, embrace and cultivate the beauty that results from people coming from different cultural heritages?  A country committed to providing equal rights for everyone?  Or a country that reflects and embraces the alternative to these values….?  I love the bumper sticker, “Think – It’s Patriotic!”  I would add to that, “Think and Question – It’s Patriotic!”

Looking at this country, and at my home country, Israel, it feels like an impossible task to right all of the wrongs and bring to life these values that I hold close.  So I always remind myself that change begins with me, in my soul, in my home, in my work, in my world.  And what is my world?  My world is a world of music and community and autism and special people with special needs, and very piercing questions!!

Autism is a different culture than the mainstream culture.  It is one more culture that must be embraced and accepted by the mainstream culture.  While it is fairly easy to identify different ethnic cultures by an individual’s dress or skin color, autism is often not immediately recognized by the observer.

In the world of autism, there are many questions to ask.  What causes autism?  Can it be healed?  Why are there so many children with autism now?  What’s going on that the numbers keep rising?  What’s with this ongoing controversy about vaccinations?  How do we encompass people with autism?  How do we help them figure out this world?  What changes do those with “typical” neurology (is there really such a thing?) need to make in their communication styles in order to include people with sensory processing disorder and atypical neurology?  (Those are just some of my questions….I’m sure everyone reading this can add questions of their own and I invite you to do so in the comment section!)

As both an educator of people on the autism spectrum and a parent of someone on the spectrum, I have to be open to asking the unspoken questions and to conversing with my son on his questions.  Throughout the years of helping him learn to negotiate the world, he has asked questions constantly.  So many of his questions were uncomfortable to answer, because he easily notices the flaws in societal expectations of behavior!  “Mom, why can’t I show my excitement and enthusiasm?  Why do I have to be quiet?”  Ah, good point…why is excitement and enthusiasm only allowed in sports arenas and rock concerts (and some political venues at certain times), and not in learning settings, where supposedly we want to enthuse our learners?

We need to keep on asking questions, and to keep on encouraging our children and their teachers to ask questions.  My son is now at art school.  He was accepted with a scholarship because of his art abilities.  He is a talented artist.  However, he speaks in pictures, not words, and maintaining verbal and written university level standards is a tremendous challenge for him, one that is not actually attainable at this point.  So one new twist on the question that I have had to ask throughout his life is directed towards the institutions that accept students with different learning styles:  are they accepted but expected to fulfill the exact same academic standards as everyone else in the school?  Or by accepting them, does the institution recognize that they are a different type of learner and can fulfill those academic standards in a different fashion?

Ask my son a question, and let him draw you the answer.  You will receive a deep, highly nuanced, thought-provoking response, that will provide you with information to continue the conversation.  Ask him a question, and require him to answer you verbally or in writing, and you will receive a potentially confused answer that will leave you wondering how to proceed in the conversation.

As an educator, I thoroughly understand the requirement for academic institutions to maintain standards.  I also understand the ability to be flexible and encompass different learning styles and neurological brain structures.  So the question I pose myself on this eve of Rosh HaShanah is this:  how can I help explain to the world that being different is wonderful, and that reaching out to the “other” in whatever fashion that presents itself, is a welcome challenge?

Here is a song I wrote for my son’s Bar Mitzvah…..full of his questions, and our attempts at answers 🙂  He was 13 at the time, and of course his questions are now different….but many of my answers are the same.

 

But First Do No Harm

But First Do No Harm:  Yes it’s part of the Hippocratic oath, but it has also been the phrase that has guided both my parenting and my teaching, more or less successfully depending on the day!  It is also the name of my newest musical project, sharing “concert-conversations” about disability awareness and inclusion.

My devil’s advocate friends often ask me, “But everyone knows about disabilities, they don’t need you to make them aware.”  Yes, in principle, most people do know about disabilities.  They certainly know how to recognize someone in a wheel chair, someone with a physical disability.  But what about invisible disabilities , like ADD, ADHD, Autism (ASD), Learning Disabilities (LD)?  While people know about them from reading about them, they quite often do not recognize what they are looking at when they meet someone with one of these labels.  And they often do not understand the trauma and frustration that accompany those labels.  Or how those labels may have an impact on a child’s behavior.

As I have observed often throughout my life, a person with autism looks like anyone else their age, but when people start to talk to them, they discern something different.  But they don’t know what.  And the usual response is to move slowly away.  People rarely say to themselves, “Oh, s/he has autism.”  They more often say to themselves, “Oh, s/he is weird.”  Instead of moving away, an alternative response could be to think for a moment, “Oh, this person is different, I need to figure out a different way of conversing.  It’s okay that they are not like me, we can still figure out a way to communicate.”

How different the world would be if we did that with everyone we met throughout our days!  We might then not have xenophobia, or homophobia, or autism-phobia.  If we weren’t busy “othering” people, we might be able to have friends and acquaintances that are very different than us, and respect and appreciate differences rather than fear them.

Autism is very different than a physical disability…and first of all, is it even a disability?  Depends on who you ask.  Whether you think of autism as a disability or not will have a big impact on how you interact with someone with autism.  And whether you are one of those people who pulls away or leans in (not physically maybe, but with your intention) will determine what kind of conversation and respect you are showing the person with autism.

When my family and I first arrived in the United States, my son was 3 and a half.  He was mostly non-verbal, but understood and responded to two languages with no trouble.  Wherever we went in nature, animals seemed to gather, and not run away the way they would run away from me.  Deer seemed especially entranced by him.  Having just arrived from the Middle East, he was equally entranced by the deer.

As a musician, I sang to my children constantly, and he sang every song with me on key.  He could sing, but he couldn’t talk.  From the time he was born I knew that something was up, and had been trying to figure out how to help him without being scared by labels and diagnoses.  I wrote this song over a number of years, and it actually has a factoid that is now dated, that is no longer conventional wisdom about autism.  When I present it now, I ask the audience, “Do you know what is no longer true in this song?”  See if you can figure it out.

The name of the song is “The Deer Know Nothing’s Wrong”.  May we all learn that…..different is not wrong.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!