Neurodiversity, Neurodivergence, and the Significance of an Inclusive Community
by Jacki Edry
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For the last few weeks, I have found myself mulling over a particularly painful incident that took place in Israel and made waves in the news and on social media. It involved a man and his ten-year-old son, who were rudely asked to leave a Beit Knesset in Tel Aviv because the child was autistic. The Rabbi had decided that his occasional vocalizations would "disrupt" prayers. He was adamant that they leave and spoke to them in a highly insulting manner.
When I saw a clip of the incident, my heart broke for both the father and son. I literally flinched from the wave of pain and anger that traveled through my body. I remembered all the situations where I had experienced something similar as a parent of an autistic child and his neurodivergent siblings.
I wished there was a way for me to explain to the child that he should try to disregard what the Rabbi had said because he had made a terrible mistake. Apparently, he had forgotten a few fundamental aspects of Judaism: we are all divine individuals that HaShem created as He wants us to be (therefore, no individual is superior to another, and everyone should be treated respectfully and equally), and the mitzvah of "ahavta l'reyacha c'mocha (love thy neighbor as thyself), which one says before prayers, and in essence, helps the prayers be accepted.
The fact that such an incident can occur demonstrates that the Rabbi, and many other people I have encountered along the way, have some fundamental misconceptions about neurodiversity, spirituality, and community.
Neurodiversity is part of human existence, as everybody has been gifted with a unique neurological makeup. Every individual also has a mission (shlichout) to carry out in the world that HaShem tailored specifically for them.
Although a large part of the population is considered to be neurotypical, there are many neurodivergent (or neurodistinct) individuals (diagnosed with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory and auditory processing disorder, Irlen syndrome, and more) that are part of every community.
One thing that is often overlooked regarding neurodivergent individuals is their connection to spirituality. For some reason, many people assume that individuals with communication challenges or behavioral differences have lesser spiritual understanding or needs. Over the years, I have learned this is not usually the case. Many neurodistinct people, even if they are nonverbal, are strongly connected to G-d and long to be accepted in their religious communities. Their way of expressing themselves or praying may look different. However, their spiritual needs and desire to belong are no less critical to them than those of their counterparts.
In addition, many families with neurodivergent children often feel isolated from their communities due to a lack of acceptance by community members regarding the differences in the ways their children express themselves or pray. An autistic child might vocalize, or stim, and a child with ADHD may have difficulty concentrating or sitting still throughout prayers. Despite this, I must emphasize that this does not mean that they are incapable or uninterested in praying; it simply means that they do so in a unique manner.
This situation is extremely hurtful because community involvement is a fundamental part of Judaism, and a supportive community serves as a tremendous source of empowerment. Isolation from the community while coping with the challenges of raising a neurologically different child can be devastating.
Personal experience has taught me that things can be different. I have seen the benefits to the community members, neurodivergent individuals, and their family members when communities are warm and accepting of everyone.
My autistic son is now a young adult and is a valued and well-respected member of our community. In fact, every morning, after shacharit, the men wait their turn to receive a blessing from him before they leave the Beit Knesset. He takes part in prayers and even leads some of the songs. I consider this quite remarkable because he has minimal verbal abilities and occasionally vocalizes while praying, especially when he becomes emotional.
When he was young, he spent most of his time running from place to place. Yet, he always loved being in the Beit Knesset during prayers. He would occasionally run up to the bimah or try to enter the Torah ark, but the members of our community were always accepting and helpful to all of us. They were willing to see beyond his limitations and encouraged him to participate in prayers to the best of his abilities. As he grew older, he learned to pray according to halacha and continues to do so with all his heart.
When it was time for his bar mitzvah, he made a tremendous effort to learn to read the entire Parsha. Despite his significant challenges, he didn't give up. It was beautiful to observe how the whole community supported him. And, I can assure you, there wasn't a dry eye in our Beit Knesset when he succeeded in putting on his tefillin and reading the Parsha beautifully. It was as if he was everyone's child, and we all felt embraced by our community along his journey.
As a family, we have been incredibly blessed and grateful to have been part of an inclusive community where all members are respected and supported. And I hope and pray that all Jewish communities will be equally inclusive one day and better sooner than later. I wholeheartedly believe that Judaism is inseparable from inclusiveness, as we are all G-d's creatures deserving of love and acceptance.
About the author
Jacki Edry published her first book "Moving Forward: Reflections on Autism, Neurodiversity, Brain Surgery, and Faith" in 2021, and shortly after that, she launched her blog. She is a Hampshire College graduate with an extensive background in education, writing, lecturing, and marketing. She has been exploring the world of autism and neurodiversity for over thirty-five years. She has also spent many years advocating for inclusion and educational reform. Her work as a neurodiversity advocate has been recognized worldwide, and in 2023 she was chosen as one of the top 50 Neurodiversity Evangelists by ND by design, powered by Dynamis.
Jacki was born and raised in NY, and upon completion of her studies, she made Aliyah to Israel, where she resides with her husband, children, and dog.
To learn more about Jacki's work and ideas, please visit:
Blog and website: www.jackisbooks.com.