Editor's Note: Although the DSM-5 no longer uses Asperger's Syndrome as a classification, it is still used by many people with Asperger's, clinicians and community.
I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome when I was four years old and attended various special education programs since I was three. I am now a college student and understand how several decisions that I have made have been essential in helping me to overcome challenges, to become the person that I am today and to thrive. One of those decisions, my decision to become religiously observant, which I made around the time that I began high school, has been essential to my growth.
Prior to becoming observant, I had very few friends. Additionally, I was very much aware that I was struggling to find an environment in which I would be able to establish and maintain friendships and it was very frustrating that I had not yet found that environment. However, one year on Simchat Torah (a Jewish holiday celebrating the annual completion of reading the entire Torah), I went to an Orthodox synagogue. I strongly sensed that becoming part of an Orthodox community would likely help me to have increased opportunities to have close friends. I began attending the synagogue with increasing regularity.
About a year after I first visited the synagogue, my family moved to Chevy Chase, MD, which, unlike the neighborhood in which my family had previously lived, was within walking distance of the synagogue. I soon began regularly attending the synagogue. About two years after I began regularly attending the synagogue, I decided to become Shomer Shabbat (strictly observing the Jewish Sabbath according to a strict interpretation of Jewish law). I also decided to become Orthodox in all aspects of my life and, beginning in ninth grade, attended an Orthodox school.
I have established and maintained many very important and special friendships that would have impossible, or far less likely, if I had not been observant. It is very important for me to have friends whom I know have complete confidence in me and my abilities. I have found many of those special friends in Orthodox communities, not only nearby, but also in Canada and Israel.
An important aspect of being observant that I have thought at great length about, and continue to think at great length about, is how important it is to be sensitive and respectful to my family and about how important it is to respect my family's Jewish observance. Although I have made different decisions regarding Jewish observance than my family has, I have deep respect for my family and I want to be very clear about that. My family has said that, although they have decided not to live an Orthodox lifestyle, they greatly respect my decisions. Furthermore, my family has said that they are very happy that I found a school environment, at an Orthodox school, which enabled me to thrive. I have committed myself to completely and fully respecting my family's decisions.
Additionally, my religious observance influences my decisions about what I would like to do in the future. I would very much like to have a positive impact for people with special needs. More specifically, I am thinking about doing work that will have a positive impact for individuals with special needs in the context of the Jewish community. I am considering studying to be a rabbi and working to help people with special needs in the context of the rabbinate. I am also thinking about working in the field of Jewish education and working to change the lives of individuals with special needs, in an important and positive way, in the context of Jewish education.
I view my religious observance as a gift from G-d. My religious observance helps me to have very important insights which I’m not sure that I would otherwise have. I very much look forward to continuing to plan for my future. Furthermore, being religiously observant has been truly essential in helping to enable me to develop the soul that I have and am continuing to develop. I will always be very grateful for the opportunities that being observant has given me and continues to give me.
Nathan Weissler, 22, is a college student at Montgomery College in the Washington, D.C., area. He has been advocating for individuals with special needs for several years. In his free time, Nathan likes to read. He hopes to work in special education after completing his studies.