By Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer, Director, Whole Community Inclusion

As part of their ongoing training to learn how to support children with a variety of learning disabilities and special needs in a congregational school setting, teens in our Reta Emerson Fellowship/Teen Assistant Program (TAP) focused on learning more about autism in this month’s session. April is National Autism Awareness Month and statistics from the CDC indicate that 1 in 68 children is now diagnosed on the autism spectrum. We know that preparing our synagogue schools to work with these children’s strengths and challenges is essential to creating an inclusive Jewish community.

After watching Autism: The Musical, an HBO documentary that features the amazing Elaine Hall, a Jewish mother who adopted a son from Russia who has autism, as she brings together children on all parts of the spectrum to express their unique gifts by creating a collaborative musical. The teens discussed the impact of autism on the families that they saw depicted in the film and the ones that they know in their own lives.

Each teen was asked to write how he/she would explain autism to someone who doesn’t know anything about it. Each explanation (a few of which are listed below) is expressive, articulate and shows the understanding and compassion of the terrific teens who wrote them:

“Autism is a development where someone may have difficulties with social situations, talking, echoing and more. They are very smart, sweet and funny. Every person with autism has different strengths and challenges.”

“Someone who acts differently than most and needs extra help with things. Does things anyone else can do, but does it differently.”

“Having autism is a wild card. It can range from verbal, physical, and mental disabilities. You don’t know what you have until after the cards are shown.”