It is important for parents of children with special needs to not feel like they are isolated from their peers with typically developing children—and it is equally important for parents raising typical kids for them to find ways to teach their children about disability without fear or anxiety.
When my son George was diagnosed with autism at age three, my friends, family and acquaintances shared a variety of reactions — from expressions of support and encouragement to manifestations of anxiety and fear. My husband and I were struggling with our own feelings of shock and grief and didn’t have room or desire to take care of other people’s issues that George’s diagnosis triggered.
We gravitated towards spending time with those friends who were okay knowing that George’s behavior and communication were sometimes unpredictable; that a play date at a park might include a meltdown and that hanging out with the Kaplan-Mayers could mean getting stared at as strangers eyes lingered on our differently-behaving boy. We’ve been pretty blessed to have a number of close family friends (and our real extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins) who love our son, love us and are open to the both the blessings and the chaos that come with raising a child on the spectrum.
For many families, this natural interaction and hanging out time with families who have neurotypical children does not happen, or does not happen often enough. It may be that children are enrolled in special education programs and so parents are not meeting “non-special ed” families. It may be that the friends that parents had before having a child with a disability haven’t known what to say or how to give support and those friendships may have ended. It may be that parents raising kids with special needs are physically and mentally exhausted and struggle to make time for any social time for themselves and their children.
I’ve been a Jewish educator for over twenty years and when George was transitioning from a Jewish special needs preschool classroom to a public kindergarten, I decided to create a Shabbat family program for families who have children with special needs. I wanted George to have a place to continue learning the Jewish music he loved so much and I wanted a place that our whole family could connect with other families like us. I worked closely with my friends and colleagues Rabbis Margot Stein and Michelle Greenfield to create developmentally appropriate lessons in a setting that didn’t overwhelm sensory-sensitive children and the Celebrations! program began.
Over the years, a kind of reverse inclusion occurred. Several families in our synagogue who have typical children started coming to Celebrations!. They didn’t care that the program was designed for families with kids of different abilities—they just looked forward to being in a warm and welcoming Shabbat environment.
My family has made new friends with these families who have stepped into our world with openness and caring. When we hang out together outside of Celebrations!, their children understand that sometimes George needs to jump up and down for a while and that he uses his ipad to express his needs. They have been exposed to our world and become accustomed to it.
Perhaps structured programs like the Celebrations! design can help create spaces for more sharing and more friendships to occur; they benefit us all.
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer coordinates Celebrations! at Mishkan Shalom; a curriculum is available to bring the program to your synagogue. She also serves as Special Needs Resources Director at Jewish Learning Venture and in her spare time teaches about cooking for kids of all abilities.