As a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology doing research on Jewish parents of children with autism, I have found that many mothers and fathers interpret their child’s diagnosis in relation to God.
When I asked parents to identify reasons for their child’s autism, many speak about scientific factors, such as inadequate prenatal care or premature birth, but others see it in a more spiritual light. A religious interpretation provides some parents with comfort, purpose and meaning, but others feel a sense of distress and blame.
For example: two mothers saw God behind their child’s autism. They discussed their belief that given previous failed pregnancies, it was their expected role in the world to be the mother of a child with autism. One said the following:
“My initial answer is that is because God wanted me to have a kid with autism. I don’t understand why he wanted me to have a kid with autism, but he wanted me to have a kid with autism … everything is for a reason and I believe that this is who I am supposed to be. I am supposed to be a mother of a kid with autism.”
One father I talked to, however, found that raising a child with autism and being exposed to the special needs community made him question his religious education, which had taught him that sinful behavior would be punished:
“I am sure there are plenty of people who don’t have disabled kids and have sinned just as much. Or there were people pure as snow and never sinned a day in their life and they are afflicted with numerous disabled kids. What did they do wrong? It is a very very unproductive and dangerous road to go down. The alternative is God works in mysterious was and we have no idea.”
When his son was diagnosed, he sought the assistance of a rabbi. The rabbi told him “I have no idea what God wants from you.” The father said he found this answer honest and comforting because it confirmed his belief that a person was neither punished nor rewarded for his or her behavior.
This father went on to discuss the importance of religious leaders and community members supporting and reassuring parents that they did nothing to deserve their child’s disability. At the same time, some parents find spiritual sustenance in a belief that God has some connection to their child’s disability. Rabbis and professionals are in a delicate and important position: they need to discern which religious interpretation a parent is making, and provide the necessary support. This will strengthen the parents and help them advocate for their children.
Frances Victory is a Developmental Psychology PhD candidate at CUNY Graduate Center in New York City. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org