By Rabbi Margot Stein, WCI Consultant

I’m watching my 14 year old son with autism get on the van that takes him to a special school, a place where they have known him for 8 years. A place where they have watched him grow from a behaviorally-challenged 1st grader to a budding high schooler eager to participate in the life of the community. I’m thinking about the value of being known, of being seen for your strengths and weaknesses. Especially when it comes to education, how important it is that they know how to help my son learn.

If you have ever entertained the thought of sending your child to Religious School without letting the principal or teacher know that there are learning issues, let me ask you to think twice about that before doing it. And maybe a third time.

Sometimes parents are tempted to send their son or daughter to supplementary school without guiding the staff because they want their child to “have a break from being different,” or “just be like the other kids at the synagogue.”

Except for one little problem: our kids are actually not like their neurotypical peers.

Our kids deserve a Jewish education. One of our finest accomplishments as a community has been to become more inclusive of children with learning differences. Tending to each child through their religious school years, and culminating that education with a bar or bat mitzvah is a highlight of many a Jewish child’s life, and our children are no exception.

But they are an exception to the idea that learning will take place at Religious School without the usual supports that they receive in their secular education. We have to give them the same chance to succeed that we want them to have during the regular school day. If they need help with focus, or with processing information, or they need frequent breaks, or support to sit quietly and attend to the lesson, then they deserve those supports in the afternoon school setting too. By trying to “pass” as neurotypical, we actually set them up to fail.

Some parents worry about the stigma of being different. I worry more about the negative experience of not being able to succeed while their peers are getting what they need. I would hope that a religious school environment would be able to create a safe and accepting atmosphere for everybody’s unique and God-given qualities, and would help children appreciate differences rather than judge them. I would hope that all parents reinforce that idea with their children. As for the educators, my experience is that they sincerely want your child to succeed, and need the right information (and training) to help make that happen. The training comes from Whole Community Inclusion (WCI), a project of Jewish Learning Venture that trains education directors, teachers and teenage “buddies” for the classroom. The right information comes from you.

After all, by this time of year, teachers are noticing each child’s abilities and learning habits. Make sure your child is getting everything possible to make the most of her education. WCI can also do disability awareness training for your child’s Religious School, to help make it a more welcoming environment if that’s what’s needed.

And, no matter what anyone else thinks, we need to show our kids that being themselves is always ok. Needing what we need is always acceptable. Being exactly who we are is…well, perfect.