After Struggling With 'Communications' Class, A Boy With Autism Finds Summer Love
07/24/2013 - 12:01
Rabbi Rebecca Schorr
Rabbi Rebecca Schorr
Rabbi Rebecca Schorr

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 as well as a variety of other websites. Writing at This Messy Life (, Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr

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As a teacher of children with special needs, I was very saddened by that general education teacher's treatment of students with disabilities and how they often undermine the success of our students due to their ignorance. As a parent who has sent her children to jewish sleep away camps, I can only share all the wonderful experiences, and life long friendships my daughters have maintained with their camper friends, they are now in their mid 20's.

This article has made my day. What a beautiful story and a beautiful boy.

I wish all preservice teachers could read this.

Really cool! Did you know that smelling has an impact of dopamine levels in the olfactory bulb, which is connected intricately with the emotional centers of the brain? His girlfriend, may unwittingly, be the best communications therapy he will ever have with her soap. (Forgive the Sensory Enrichment spin, I don't mean to trivialize the relationship with technicalities. It's just my way of saying: REALLY COOL!)

Wonderful article in every way!

Love teen love! Great story.

my son with Asperger's is now engaged to the most amazing girl who "gets him". He has blossomed since they found each other. I cannot describe the joy we have in watching him love and be loved - and be understood and appreciated unconditionally. Im yirtzeh Hashem by you.

Brilliantly written, Rebecca. And thank you for exposing your new normal, so that we may all appreciate our own. What a blessing!

Lucky girl! (And hurrah for Ben!)

What a wonderful way of knowing how Ben is learning to find himself even in camp!

"even in camp'? Isn't one of the very qualitative benefits of summer sleep away camp the idea that campers without parents looking over their shoulders find themselves? Discover new ideas an new ideals. Become independent, and accepting, caring, and sensitive.Contrary to this letter and the NY Times article who last week wrote about care packages filled with forbidden candy (oh please), lets remember how much camp contributes to youth development. When readers recall that. then the only response is
soap, of course scented wonderful soap.