As part of Jewish Disability Awareness Month 2012, my daughter Shaina, now 11, addressed a group of third through sixth graders at Temple Israel Center in White Plains. This is what she said:
“Hi, my name is Shaina and I am 8 years old. I have a brother and his name is Avi. He is 11 years old. Avi loves to play like all other kids but he plays in a different way. He loves the things that other kids love, like music, videos, games and other things. But Avi behaves differently and learns differently because he has autism. This means that his brain works differently and it is hard for him to make friends and understand like other kids his age.
“It’s sometimes hard to be Avi’s sister. Sometimes he hurts me or gets frustrated, but sometimes he is just the best brother ever. I love Avi because he is creative and like my best friend. I love watching TV with him and playing with him. Sometimes I have to teach him things, but over the years, he has taught me, too. He taught me not to make fun of others and that you can play in a different way than your friends and you can’t always get what you want but sometimes what you get is just as good.
“He also taught me that you should always be happy and try to see the good in somebody, not just their disability. I will still always love him, even if he has autism, because he is the best brother in the world and I am so lucky that he is mine.”
We often talk about the effects of a special-needs child on the family. Most of what we read is about how difficult it can be for the siblings, that they might not get enough attention, that there may be tension in the house and a whole host of other issues.
All of those things are true, but … there is something magical that happens in the lives of these siblings. These challenges can help them grow up kinder, more tolerant, more loving, and more resilient.
We have been blessed with four children. Avi, our eldest, is now 14. His sister and two brothers (twins Shael and Shaya, turning 5 soon) love him unconditionally, take pride in all of his accomplishments and work hard each day to help him reach his goals. They do all of this with compassion; they get that his behaviors are a result of his lack of understanding.
They’ve also learned a lot from him, as Shaina said back in 2012. He has taught them not to sweat the small stuff, to celebrate every accomplishment and to accept everyone without judgment.
We all wish that our children didn’t have any struggles. But we can’t change reality, and it is our responsibility to address the difficult situations, put supports in place, and help our children see the silver lining. In this way, they will not be brought down by a sibling, but lifted up in ways far beyond our imagination.
Michelle Steinhart has been working in Jewish Education and Jewish Special Education for over fifteen years, teaching in day schools and synagogue schools, serving as a counselor in summer camps, and as an advisor in youth groups. She has been at Temple Israel Center in White Plains since 1998 and has been the Director of Special Student Services since 2000. Michelle graduated Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women with a B.A. Degree in Education and an Associate’s Degree in Judaic Studies. Michelle went on to earn her M.A. degree in Special Education at Hunter College. Michelle has led professional development sessions and is a 2002 recipient of the Grinspoon Steinhardt Award for Excellence in Jewish Education. Michelle and her husband Yaakov live in Rockland County with their four children, Avi, Shaina, Shael and Shaya. Michelle's oldest child, Avi has an autism spectrum disorder.