As a rabbi, I cannot count the number of times I have started a class with the following statement:
“There is no such thing as a stupid question. In fact, chances are in your favor that if you have a question, someone else in the room is wondering the very same thing.”
Which is why I was so touched to receive the following question from a friend:
“So … when my kids see someone, kid or adult, who is behaving in a way they don’t understand — who I can see is probably on the spectrum or has some other significant difference — what’s the best way to explain it to my kids? I really don’t know the best language to use to explain what they are seeing, and while I can give them good advice about appropriate ways to respond, my urge is to also want to “name” what they are seeing….”
What touches me the most is my friend’s desire to educate her kids and her own awareness that she could use a little help. Rather than just cobble together some response to her children, she wants her kids to understand both what they are seeing and how they can integrate people with autism into their world.
The very short, and most simple, answer is this:
“While all of us are unique, some people have brains that work quite differently from everyone else’s brains. And because of that, they may do things that seem strange to us. But on the inside, they are just like everyone else.”
But there is, of course, much more to autism.
My go-to for any question, and most especially with kids, is the bookshelf. Because others, much more eloquent than I, have shaped language in a nuanced and age-appropriate manner. There are dozens and dozens of books that speak to the subject. Here are a few of my favorite ones:
1. “All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome” by Kathy Hoopman
Using a cat to describe some of the sensitivities a person with Aspergers may have is an easy way to introduce Asperger’s Syndrome to people of all ages. Don’t be mislead by the light-hearted approach; the book is a serious one. However, it uses a humorous, though respectful, approach in dealing with a misunderstood topic.
2. “Inside Asperger’s, Looking Out” by Kathy Hoopman
In her latest effort, Hoopman moves beyond the cat to a variety of animals to illuminate the difficulties faced by some with Asperger’s. Again, the light-hearted approach is meant to put the reader at ease while conveying some very serious information.
3. “My Best Friend Will” by Jamie Lowell and Tara Tuchel
An 11 year old girl describes her friendship with her classmate, Will, who is on the autism spectrum. Viewed through her eyes, the reader comes to understand some of Will’s strengths, struggles, and ability to be fully included in daily activities.
4. “What It Is to Be Me!: An Asperger Kid Book” by Angela Wine
Written from the perspective of a young boy with Asperger’s, this book is particularly useful with young children. The simple text and colorful illustrations provide important facts without being overwhelming.
5. “In My Mind: The World through the Eyes of Autism” by Adonya Wong
Sometimes people with autism do things that seem weird or strange. What if we could get inside the mind of someone with autism and understand why he or she might be behaving in a certain way? This story takes us on that journey in such a profound fashion that it’s impossible to watch someone with autism in the same way.
No parent will ever mind being asked to help educate when the question is asked in the genuine and gentle way that my friend asked. It invites us to invite you into our child’s world. So please, go ahead and ask.
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 online sites. 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