At our local middle school, “Communications” is a required course for all seventh graders, including our son, Ben, who has Asperger’s Disorder:
We will explore all the ways human beings communicate with each other, including reading and writing, speaking and listening, as well as non-verbal ways of communicating, such as gestures, visual arts, signs and symbols. We will also work on research, study, and organizational skills, in order to help you better clarify and express your ideas.
Since Asperger’s affects the ability to communicate, socialize and interpret information, one might think this course was just what the proverbial doctor ordered – with adjustments to pedagogy and expectations to accommodate Ben’s deficits.
His teacher, however, did not seem to understand the need for modifications. She covered his work in red marks that identified his mistakes but didn’t help him learn. He teetered on the brink of failure for much of the year.
“Geez, doesn’t she know that I’ve got a communication disorder?” Ben would wonder.
More disturbingly, sometimes answers that appeared correct were marked wrong. She seemed convinced, for example, that he didn’t understand the concept of similie but I – a rabbi, a writer and yes, his mother – would look at his work and wonder if his teacher was the one who didn’t get it.
This class only exacerbated Ben’s feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Now, I know these feelings are a normal part of growing up. Ben is not alone in wondering if he will ever find someone who will want to be with him, to marry him. But add autism to the uncertainty of adolescence and you are looking at, if not an entirely different beast, a much bigger one.
One of the things that makes Asperger’s so difficult is that Ben is aware of his differences. He knows that he isn’t like the other kids at school, but he rarely knows what it is that sets him apart, or what he might do differently to fit in better. He knows kids his age are pairing off. But he isn’t clear how, or even why, that happens. He knows that it has something to do with love and with marriage in adulthood and in junior high, with the ability to talk to girls and pass his Communications class.
So when he cries at night that he wants a girlfriend or that no one will ever love him, it is an expression of his fear that he will be alone. Without a soulmate. A loving companion. And like most teens, he doesn’t feel soothed by his mother’s reassurances.
Which is why, even weeks after the school year ended, I was thrilled to read this in a letter from Ben’s fifth day of camp:
Statis Update: A girl named …. likes me for who I am. She asked me to the dance.
Someone likes him. Someone likes my son. And asked him to the dance! And while this was thrilling, I was touched most of all by his reflection that some girl – someone he had met just days before – likes him for who he is. Which is really what we all want: the validation that we are valuable and valued. Desirable and desired.
But nothing – nothing – could have prepared me for the letter we received ten days later:
The best thing that happened is that I got a girlfriend. She is Jewish. And she’s nice, pretty, kind, and she SMELLS LIKE A FANCY HOTEL BATHROOM.
I don’t know which part of this pleased me the most. I love his description of this girl. Because it lets me know what he values in a love interest. But more than that, I was touched by the last part. It conveys the awkwardness and innocence of love’s first blush.
Maybe it’s the thrill that he got close enough to a girl to smell her soap.
Or maybe because when it mattered most of all, it turns out that he knows what a similie is and how to use it.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow whose work appears regularly on the Rabbis Without Borders blog and Kveller.com as well as a variety of other websites. Writing at This Messy Life (www.rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com), Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr