The Gifts of an Autistic Child
by Rabbi Aron Moss
After our daughter was born, my husband and I didn't have children for ten long years. Then we were finally blessed with a beautiful boy. I had big plans for him. He was going to be a doctor, maybe a rabbi, maybe both. He was going to marry a lovely Jewish girl and give me many beautiful grandchildren.
Well, my plan is not working out. My son, now five years old, was diagnosed with severe autism a year ago. He is five years old and non-verbal. He is five years old and cannot dress himself. He is five years old and uses diapers around the clock. He is five years old and cannot communicate with signs or pictures, as it is all too complicated for him. He communicates by screaming or crying or kicking or grabbing what he wants.
I am infinitely sad. He will never get married and have children, let alone be a doctor or rabbi. My dream of having nachas* from my son is shattered. Do you have any wisdom to share with a broken and exhausted mother?
*Nachas: pride and pleasure a parent derives from their children (Yiddish/Hebrew)
I read your words and I can hear the anguish in your voice. Even if I can find some wisdom to share, it may not be able to counter that anguish. Emotion is emotion, and intellect does not always speak to emotion.
But I am sure you have moments when you stand a little above the emotion, and at those moments you can gain perspective. It is towards this perspective that I will try to contribute.
Your son was entrusted to you, and specifically to you. G-d knew exactly what He was doing when He chose you to be this boy's mother. This is not a punishment. It is also not easy. But it is a blessing.
Children are not given to us to be ours. They are our responsibility, not our property. Our job is to provide for their spiritual, emotional and physical needs to the best of our ability.
What we receive in return are beautiful and profound gifts. These gifts can come in several forms. And not always are the gifts what we expected.
Some children give the gift of nachas. When our children excel at school, in their professions, in their relationships, and in their contribution to the world, it reflects on us and we gain deep satisfaction from them.
But some children do not give that sort of nachas. They don't accomplish the milestones and cannot achieve the successes reached by others. These children give us something else entirely.
They shift our paradigms. They teach us new ways of loving and giving. They push our limits and extend our horizons. They demand from us a more unconditional and altruistic type of love. And they give us a gift that is more precious and hard earned than nachas.
They give us depth.
Your dear son has presented you with a challenge, one that you did not ask for: To redefine what it means to be a mother, what it means to have a child, what it means to love, and indeed what it means to live in this world. Are we here to enjoy, or are we here to toil? Is pleasure the most important thing, or is meaning and purpose? What counts more, what I receive or what I contribute? Am I here just for me or am I here to serve?
You have the power to answer these questions, by being the mother that only you can be to your son.
I am not saying you are lucky. I am not saying I envy you. I am not saying you have nothing to complain about. I am saying that you have a choice.
You can allow your disappointment and sorrow to eat you up, erode your marriage, sideline your healthy daughter and breed more resentment towards your son. You will be justified in doing this. No one can blame you. And no one will gain anything.
Or you can choose to look deeply at yourself and say: I am up to this. I am going to find the wherewithal in me to be the mother that G-d has chosen me to be. There will be moments of heartache and a lot of hard work. But this is my life. Maybe not the life I expected, but the life expected of me.
Doctors and rabbis can do a lot of good. But there is nothing more powerful than the good that can come to the world through an innocent soul of a boy, and the mother who loves him unconditionally.