Sam Gelfand: Speaking Out On Asperger Syndrome, Bullying and Jewish Community
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Sam Gelfand: Speaking Out On Asperger Syndrome, Bullying and Jewish Community

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s Whole Community Inclusion which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal” and for WHYY’s newsworks. Her latest book The Little Gate Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.

Editor's Note: I was delighted to be an audience member last spring when Sam Gelfand, a teenager from Florida, presented to a group of Jewish educators at Boston's Hebrew College about his experiences living with Asperger Syndrome. In the last few years, Sam has spoken to schools, synagogues, camps and other Jewish organizations, sharing his first-hand experiences of living with Asperger Syndrome. Sam is an incredibly engaging speaker and would love to share his powerful message with your community.

NN: Sam, since you were 12 years old, you have been speaking to communities about what it's like to live with Aspergers. Were you initially afraid to speak in front of audiences? What got you through it?

SG: Believe it or not, I have never gotten stage fright. If anything, I feel that the pressure of speaking in front of a live audience actually forces me to do better.

Since I was very young I have always felt most comfortable with a microphone in my hand. Of course, I’ve been nervous before getting on stage before, but not stage fright. When I’m about to speak to very large audiences, I’m not afraid of getting on stage and speaking, I’m just concerned about messing up. Luckily, I have been doing this for so long that that doesn’t happen much.

NN: What do you hope that people will take away from your talks?

SG: I have always summed up the message of my speech in seven words: Be patient; be accepting; be a friend. If more people had done just one of those three things when I was growing up, I would’ve had a much easier childhood and better school experiences, that’s for sure. I don’t want anyone, much less someone on the spectrum, to have to endure the bullying that I had to deal with into my teens.

NN: You have a terrific sense of humor. Is that something you've always had or were able to work on? Do you come from a funny family?

SG: Trust me: at first, humor did not come easily. People with Asperger’s are very literal and that combined with our difficulty reading social cues makes understanding humor, let alone being funny, very difficult. The problem with humor is that it can’t be taught, but over time a person who might not be particularly funny can become funny just by paying attention to what is funny. I listened to what I said and noted what got the most laughs and I went from there. This brings me to the one type of humor you can be taught: sarcasm. I have the most sarcastic family in the world. Although I didn’t understand it for many years, that influence certainly rubbed off on me, creating the lovably sarcastic individual I am today.

NN: What has been the most challenging part of living with Aspergers in your teen years?

SG: The life of a teenager revolves around socialization, which is one of the most difficult parts of having Asperger’s. I went through a lot of social skills training and other programs to mitigate that issue. As a result, I’ve been lucky enough to have made some friends throughout my high school tenure, but there are times when making new ones feels downright impossible. Sure, I've learned how to better read social cues and converse better, but that doesn’t make it much easier, especially when cliques are already in place.

NN: What do you think of as advantages in having Asperger's, in the unique way that you see the world?

SG: Two advantages immediately spring to mind. First, I understand better than anyone that people have challenges they must face and that facing those challenges can be very difficult. In this way I have become very understanding of other people’s situations and a more sensitive person in general. Second, all people with Asperger’s hyper-focus on a particular topic. When I find something I enjoy, I tend to dedicate all of my time and effort to learning about or practicing it and I become the best I can or an expert on it. Thankfully, my perseveration about baseball has been incredibly useful in terms of my burgeoning career as a sports broadcaster as I have found ways to create opportunities to harness that knowledge.

NN: You have gone to Jewish camps, Hebrew schools and became Bar Mitzvah. Did you find Jewish peers to be more understanding or did you face bullying in Hebrew school/camp settings too?

SG: It is sad to say, but I have faced bullying everywhere. My two greatest tormentors in elementary and middle school were both Jewish. I don’t think it had anything to do with them being Jewish, just what kind of people they were and their lack of understanding about people who are different from them. One nice thing about Judaism is that there are so many passages in the Torah and Haftarah and even the Talmud that speak out against the principles of bullying, so I am able to tie into that foundation when I speak to Jewish audiences and I think that makes my experience very relatable and in essence, strengthens my message.

Sam Gelfand is just 17 years old, yet his wisdom, humor, perspective and poignant words are stirring audiences throughout the country. He speaks to faculties, students, and religious and community organizations to crowds of all sizes from 25 – 25,000 people. He has also appeared in several short videos by South Florida Ford and the Palm Beach County Fire Department and has appeared on NBC in both New York and Palm Beach.

Sam is a student at The North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek, Florida, where he is the announcer for the Varsity Baseball, Basketball and Football teams and for the South Florida Collegiate Baseball League. He is also Chief Sports Editor of his school paper and is the co-creator of the school’s play-by-play sports broadcasting system, which is streamed live on Twitch TV.

A self-taught artist and drummer, Sam has a website which showcases, among other things, his political satire blog called SNaCk and his digital portfolio which contains freehand drawings of his perseveration, concept cars.

Sam will be attending the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Public Communications to study Broadcasting in the fall.

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