Tonight is the beginning of the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah, 5777. In 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.