Behind Autism, God: Parents Talk To Rabbis
06/03/2013 - 15:07
Frances Victory
Frances Victory
Frances Victory

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 victory.frances@gmail.com

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I am 50 years old and have lived with autism my entire life. I have found that about no parents of any Jewish girl will accept a Jewish man with autism however high functioning. I have had to go outside the faith to find a lady who would take the time to understand me and accept me for who and what I am. I know I am a Wicked Child... but at least I can be happy.

Wow! To think that a rabbi might be requested to get involved with the parents' feelings about Autism. That would be hugely progressive. Our former Rabbis at Emanuel in San Francisco including Jonathan Jaffe and Sydney Mintz refused to work with us to find a meaningful path to a bar mitzvah for our son, refused to allow us to support a pilot program for maybe 3 Autistic kids to learn T'fillah in their own 30 mins song session and then locked us out of a meeting re needs assessment for special needs children after I pointed out that the special needs coordinator whom we have known for a decade has 1) done nothing to help us in that decade and 2) passed over our son for any time of advanced planning for a bar mitzvah or any sort of inclusion that would work for him within the congregation. They had someone doing sign language at the start of religious school to no known deaf child, but would send my Autistic child away while his sister went along with the other kids to religious school. As a result of my protests, my family was kicked out of our synagogue and our membership was revoked. All for fighting for a place for our Autistic child within our Jewish community. Unbelievable - and the Jewish news here refuses to cover the story.

I doubt that God played any role in autism since autism is a man made disorder. Read the book The Age of Autism and see how mercury played the first role of causing the first early cases of autism. Then seek out the independent(not one by drug companies of the CDC) studies of the link between vaccines and autism -the rise mov ing along with the increase in vaccines in the early 1990's. If one puts too much God in the epidemic-then it's easy to miss the real cause and it will never end.
Maurine Meleck, SC

Couldn't agree with you more, Maurine. We have no doubt our sons' autism (we have twins who both have autism - one more severe than the other) is man-made. We do not blame God for their autism - or view it as punishment - but it's one of the unfortunate results of living in a world where people's actions (from their own free-will) can impact others significantly... We do, however, thank God that He's shown us the truth about what happened to our little ones, which has helped us immensely in their healing. Thank you for this comment. The Age of Autism is a brilliant book and needs to be read widely so that more and more folks understand the history (and culprits) of this epidemic.

Sounds like a fascinating study. My son, who is on the spectrum and almost 12, often gets angry at God. He says, "why did God make me like this? I pray to him to make my life easier, but He doesn't listen to me!" We choose not to feed him simple answers, since there are none. Rather, we acknowledge his struggles and tell him that we don't have the answers but we are proud of him for his constant efforts.

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