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Nov 8 2013

Friday Night: What Does “I Want Shabbat” Mean in Autism Speak?

By at 11:47 am

cut slices of challah

“I want Shabbat,” my son Benjamin proclaimed on a recent Saturday afternoon as the guests we’d invited over for lunch milled about the house. I looked up from the salad I was throwing together, certain I’d misunderstood him. Shabbat is something we do every week in our house, yet something Benjamin, now 10 years old, had never once acknowledged. But then he said it again.

Benjamin has autism, and with his variation of the disorder comes serious language impairments that make it insanely difficult for him to do something that most of us take for granted; to identify the thoughts he wants to express, find the corresponding words, and then actually put those words out into the world. Communicating is an Everest-scaling level challenge for him, and because of that, Benjamin has become quite adept at paring it down to the basics.

And we, in turn, have become quite adept at interpreting the collection of compact lines he has curated over the years in order to get his needs met. More difficult is decoding the subtext, although we have become increasingly skilled at that part, too.

For example, “Ayla crying,” is Benjamin-speak for, “As you might have noticed, my little sister is having quite the tantrum, and if you don’t intervene I’m going to do it myself and it won’t be pretty.” But it could also be, “The sound of her crying is to me what nails on a chalkboard is to you, so maybe that’ll help you understand why I am currently so, so, so compelled to pinch her very hard.”

Or there’s the classic, “I want car,” which on the surface means, “Let’s get out of here,” but could also be a stand-in for, “The only tolerable thing about this lame party is the chips, and now that you’ve cut me off I’ve realized I’d much prefer to be home, on the sofa, watching YouTube videos.”

This Shabbat line was trickier, not only because it was so thrillingly novel, but also because of its abstract quality. That said, it didn’t take me long to figure out where my challah and chicken-loving kid was coming from. He was hungry.

“We’re going to start really soon,” I assured him.

He seemed satisfied. I, on the other hand, was not. Instantly my mind leaped into Google translator mode, seizing upon Benjamin’s three words to see if they might contain any hidden layers.

What prompted him to choose “Shabbat” in place of one of his go-to words like “lunch” or “chicken”? Is the observance of Shabbat, a loaded and meaningful part of our family’s routine, actually loaded and meaningful to him, too? Is it something he does in fact want?

Benjamin, who continues to grow and progress in ways that constantly amaze us, might one day be able to answer my questions. Or he might not. For now I’ll file it under Mysteries of Autism. It’s a very big file.

What I do know for sure is that Benjamin was telling me a lot, even if he didn’t intend to.

He was telling me–or reminding me, really–that he is way more tuned in than I sometimes give him credit for.

That sticking close to home and setting the table and breaking out the grape juice truly does make a day feel very different from the rest of the crazy week.

That it is probably time to restart some kind formal Jewish education, which we postponed eight years ago in order to focus primarily on teaching him the basics like how to point, make eye contact, and, yes, ask for things.

And that it really was time to get started with the meal. Everyone else was hungry, too.

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