Can Judaism play a role in Isaac’s life?

As a fairly steadfast secular Jew, religion in its singular, most fundamental form was never going to be an (al)mighty force in Isaac’s upbringing. Secular Judaism serves up head-scratchers of, well, biblical proportions though. Anyone well versed in it knows that psalms, texts and liturgy form but a slither in Judaism’s complex cultural kaleidoscope.

Even though I’ve always dwelled in the ‘barely-believer’ camp, like so many others an arcane Jewishness has run through my family’s veins. From child to adult, I gorged on the rich pickings of a decisively pick and mix approach. Where a wholesome embrace of certain traditions over others appears arbitrary yet is utterly expected and rather effortless.

If this fluid yet full-of-foibles approach to religion is round holed, then autism is, of course, resolutely square-pegged – meaning Isaac’s Judaism has never really taken shape. Random festivals, sing-songs, all-join-in stories and surprises, full on Friday night dinners, the synagogue as social hub and more, ours is a brand of Judaism that’s more party than preachy. What it isn’t is logical, descriptive, sensible, straightforward.

As such, the cornerstone of the (secular, religious, whatever) Jewish calendar, Passover, passes us by. As the extended family sit down to celebrate, we’re seated elsewhere. It’s a giddy and glorious affair. Children the heart and soul. Colourful stories of Jewish emancipation are read by everybody, symbolic foods – bitter, sweet and worst – are eaten, dares are made. Wine is tasted, the youngest child sings, presents are hidden. 

We tried a fair few years ago, ever so slightly. But raised the white flag early on when the hurricane of noise and food and frolics blew Isaac into major over stimulation. The spartan surroundings of a spare room the only solace. Since when we’ve retreated into risk averse avoiders.


I’m denying him something precious I know. But Passover is so bound up with trip wires. Familiar family houses lose their familiarity; people jovially jostling for space and sound. Dinner tables become sinisterly ceremonial with plates and dishes, colour and spice, and much mystique. Groaning – literally for Isaac – with foreign foods that fizz and froth at him. Cutlery, crockery, glass, china – clinking, smells overriding, people shouting, picture books of cartoonish death and destruction howling at him. Not just a sensory sickness. The scalding blur of all this clutter, audibly and visibly also blighting any order, any uniformity he yearns. Comprehension can collapse like a house of cards.

Unreconstructed, this type of boisterous Jewish cultural onslaught is not on for Isaac. The collateral damage too much. For now. Denying can actually be a decent thing to do also. Even the most basic tenets of Judaism have seemed to favour isolation over congregation for us as a family. Synagogues are bustling, busy places with singing and chanting that can become exuberant and painfully loud to many ears, sensitive or not. The protocols are potty. There’s a haphazard nature of services that can mean a swift swing from loud informality to hushed seriousness.

Our one religious-ish experience five or so years ago, around diagnosis time, had been torrid. It was at an informal service in a synagogue for parents and their little ones. Jollily conducted by an expressive teacher, wide-eyed, miming motions that enriched and complemented tales of adventure and imagination. Restless, Isaac was disengaged. The tut tut brigade were on tenterhooks. Unaware as I was of his visual struggles to decode gesticulations (how my daughter instinctively, understandingly, unlike Isaac, apes hand movements and body moves with glee is so instructive). I attempted and failed to inspire him. Leaving in collective anguish meant no return.

Maybe the sorrow of this occasion has amplified in my mind. It happened during the epoch in our familial narrative of unknowledgeable nursery stuff, nasty stares and nerves fraying. There’s an element of self-infliction with all this avoidance, knowing how many, many Jewish communities boast an inclusivity – full of intention and with a degree of success. Welcoming is ubiquitous I know that. But instinct, sociability and illogical rituals are the dominant currencies in so many synagogue environments, making the battle for someone with autism appear demanding. My stance on Judaism therefore remains devoutly in stasis.

Nevertheless, I have a daughter to add to the complicated equation now. Who will nimbly fit into our faith’s idiosyncratic offerings that are full of warmth, love and family dynamics. Issues around identity that I could put off start to surface too – I have a responsibility to at least inform and open opportunities for both my children. And quite frankly, I am laden with a sadness about the absence of Judaism in my house; the silence haunting me a little like a lingering and lost Hebrew melody. So I am beyond grateful to two recent events that forced me out of this spiritual vacuum. And have proposed potential aplenty.

The first being the invitation to Ellie’s Bat Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for girls). Ellie being a 12 year old first cousin Isaac adores with all his heart. And she loves him back just as much with a quite startling tenderness and understanding. Seizing on the solemnity of the day with brilliant simplicity, Isaac would announce with gusto for days and weeks before that “on Saturday November the 28th, Ellie will become a grown up”. Religion and sermons, ceremony and celebration, heritage, family, culture, discussion, children, a spirited and spiritual unique flavour – Bat Mitzvahs encapsulate that brand of Judaism I’ve talked about with its dynamism, dialogue and general richness. However, just this once, any amount of dwelling on the fissures that a visit could very possibly force failed to begin to chip away at Isaac’s absolute need to be there.

We arrived to witness men and women sitting  separately in the synagogue. An irrational concept to most people, let alone purveyors of logic like Isaac. He grasped this potential hurdle neatly however, leaping between my wife and me; utilising it as an opportunity to orientate himself in a new setting as opposed to processing any peculiarity. The mechanism of manically moving about a new location is one he often sets in motion on first visits. It is a method of focussing and stabilising – sometimes with success, sometimes not. My wife, admirably, courageously, unexpectedly, remained composed in the face of his energy. The physicality and enthusiasm was in the main treated with a compassion by most of the congregants.

Indeed, Isaac’s reactions and conversation, sparkling with honesty, spoke mischievously to some of them. “This singing is silly. It doesn’t work”.

His usual candidness induced humour: “Daddy, why are you kissing everybody, stop kissing the women.” “You don’t kiss grown-ups, you only kiss adult cousins and you mustn’t hug teachers,” checking himself before deciding who best to hug.

Regularly he enquired, “where’s Ellie, I need to see her, she’s becoming an adult.” A bit predictably and not a little pathetically, I was displaying a very detectable (by Isaac as well) anxiety. His mini mood shifts and irritations were manageable but always felt on the urge. A few rotten reprimanding voices in the congregation agitated me.

But there were a few moments to really cherish – which were when there was most jeopardy: when Ellie took to the stage to talk to everybody and share her learnings, and the subsequent address by the Rabbi. After some excited cries of “it’s Ellie”, he settled into a calm reverie as she spoke. Bewitched almost by her oratory.

And then the Rabbi spoke, and Isaac, with (as usual) not a trace of timidity, felt the urge to copy him a little as he spoke to the congregation. Isaac announced the Rabbi’s presence with aplomb and sincerity. The kind rabbi asked if he had “a sidekick somewhere”, an “echo perhaps”. To a now warmed up audience there was much merriment as Isaac repeated “echo” a few times and then hushed. Borrowing his school learning, he must have internally compared being at synagogue to being in an assembly, which, the two events now aligned in his head, made himself be quiet and disciplined. A real feat. We were proud and humbled.

Ellie concluded proceedings by announcing that to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah, she was making a donation to the charity, Ambitious about Autism, in honour of her cousin Isaac. “It was an easy decision,” she said, “as he’d taught me so much.” The hullabaloo at the end was a little hellish, what with people rushing around, snacks and wine, the crowd. Leaving via a playground and a neat finish as internally articulated by him, didn’t occur. The distress was transient, as we managed to manoeuvre out of the hectic synagogue, kind of in one piece give or take a lost skullcap or two. All in all it was quite a moment in ours and Isaac’s lives.

Which was built upon considerably a month or so later when my wife and I had the privilege of attending the Bar Mitzvah (coming of age ceremony for boys) of the wonderful Reuben – very similar yet very different to Isaac – who attends the same school. Electing not to take Isaac made sense to him; Reuben is a friend he sees at school, why would he see him not at school? He is a ‘School. Friend.’

A judgement-free, relaxed and open community, in a space dripping with inclusive spirituality, Reuben was honoured and seemed comfortable and comforted in his family’s unique synagogue. Reuben’s year’s preparation of chanting a significant Hebrew portion of the bible came to fruition fabulously. A beautiful voice resounding round the synagogue, a community delighted, heritage honoured, joy everywhere.

The Rabbi’s sermon sent me into emotional raptures. Veering between absorption and a little distraction, Reuben looked on whilst being celebrated completely: “We love you,” said the Rabbi. “You’re kind. Your personality so special. The room lights up when you enter.” “You’ve taught me what the scariest film in the world is!” At which point, unabashed Reuben climbed the pulpit and exchanged hugs with the Rabbi. Afterwards, a lambent Reuben told me, “I did my Bar Mitzvah. Everyone is very proud of me; I made no mistakes.”

This perhaps more than anything has created a path in my mind I can follow to drip a bit of Judaism in my family’s life. This could be Isaac. Yes, we have to show the devotion and immersion of Reuben’s family. Yes that me be unobtainable, unsuitable and a million miles off. Do I have the strength?

But with all the complications and randomness and individuality that comes with both, autism and Judaism can be joined. They can be bedfellows. And that is rather astonishing.

(I always try to reply)

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The Weight of the World on Tiny Shoulders

Being in possession of a single care in the world should be one concern too many for any seven year old. Let alone a seven year old buttressed by physical health, familial security, stability and comfort. But part and parcel of autism’s package is some wayward brain wiring that seems to spark major anxiety not to mention a very real possibility of mental health issues. From an incredibly unfair, early age.


Isaac loads his days, and quite possibly nights, with an assortment of cares, frets and stresses – too many to numerate – that take counter intuition and patience to even begin to quell. Many of them, of course, centre on his desperate, pathological need to manage and compose his days with strict, sequential events he’s familiar with. And he will prowl after my wife and me seeking clarification and confirmation and minute by minute commentary. Over and over and over again.

“Mummy, who’s looking after Tabitha after her sleep number one?”

“Is daddy going to work now or very soon?”


“Can we go to Costa Coffee on Finchley Road before the clock clicks to PM?”
“Daddy, where are your friends? Are they at home or going to work?”

The harrying begins before breakfast. With many questions and answers compiled – out of necessity – during the previous 24 hours. Scripted, by him, without ambiguity, tonally specific, not a word out of place. With all the information needing regular reinforcement in the form of repetition. To not conform, to answer without precision or attempt to divert, is to risk agitation at best, most likely meltdown. To therefore execute any plan is a highwire act, the more mundane the more menacing; such is his need to control, dictate and deliver, the tiniest deviation will trigger upset. We are hostage to who goes where, when and how. Popping to the papershop on the way to the station when it hasn’t been planned and discussed and repeated? Forget it.


There’s no let up. No respite from a need to balance his ever computing mind, the oxygen of literal information his survival. Survival, not satisfaction. Or contentment really. Answers provide transient reassurance, ephemeral composure, as opposed to any overt happiness on his part. These cares of his, these things he really, really, really worries about with their terrifying capacity to dominate him and therefore us.

There’s an overriding need to control everything that means the routine obsession has mutated into other forms of repetition, detail and description. He mines me for minutiae, mainly things I’ve told him time and time again. (Offering up new information, even in the factual, dry way he desires so desperately is hit and miss. The discoveries of detail need to be initiated by him in the main). People’s addresses, their whereabouts, train stations, street names, bus routes, places we’ve been. Things people have said, announcements train drivers have made, announcements train drivers should have said but didn’t. And dates. Of all events. All unerringly accurate. And all of this, this avalanche, delivered at pace from the moment he awakes, identically, forcefully.


“Daddy when you go to your office near Oxford Street, will you touch Oyster at Dollis hill and Piccadilly? Why?”

“Why has Tabitha got no clothes on?”


“On the Jubilee line, why does the man say stand clear of the doors? Why ,Why?”

“Can I tell you something…The light bulb on the street post in Chestnut Road doesn’t work? When will it work? Now or very soon?”



He knows the answers, they’re facts burned into his brain. But it’s not as simple as information over imagination. Everything seems in visual, photographic form, a moving tapestry he seeks to maintain. Like when he listed (off the cuff and unprompted) all the stations on the Jubilee Line that have a letter ‘p’ in them. This info had come to him effortlessly but pressingly; and of course, correctly. So as ever, a small light is shined into his big brain, that when I’m being positive and embracing enjoy and marvel at. Which is not always. Too often his attempts to make us answer everything, try our patience – and we come up short.


Despite all this, I can’t make as bold a statement as Isaac is not a happy child. He implores happiness in us after any distress. Or even randomly. He will flood with delight at unexpected moments, demanding ‘cuddles’. But authentic joy has a manic, frenzied edge; a kind of chemically induced hysteria if we comply consistently with his commands. And within seconds, he could be grasping his ears, full of tears, punching or pushing, screaming.

(The closest he comes to a relaxed joy, when the tempo of his thinking slackens and settles a little, is, as I’ve said before, when journeying anywhere on the London Underground. He exhaustedly reads all signs, memorises announcements and is energised by intersections. The whole tube map seems to appear in his mind’s eye, each station, line and colour, a kaleidoscope he lives and breathes.)


It’s as if he has a different setting or temperature to us. Swinging in seconds from radiating elation to reaching boiling point. Acclimatising to his meandering mental state can be unachievable.

During the long, drawn out, empty summer break (his baby sister a permanent, chaotic presence too) this perpetual state of botheredness my son has been in has persecuted the whole family. Knowing his despair and demands – but having blunt tools at best to deal with them is a numbing, powerless state of mind to be habiting. Bogging my mind down with Isaac’s fragile and frazzled mindset has been like brutal combat.

But mercifully hope is revealing itself from this dark, deranged place.



It comes in the form of his new school that he has just started. A rather beautiful, inspiring place that battles for around 40 children with high functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. After the mainstream struggles – despite admirable intentions – I have faith that Isaac will flourish here. Focus will be on his unique strengths and interests. Strategies tailored to overcome difficulties will be at the fore. Academic achievement will sit side by side with social, emotional and personal development.


Here, perhaps happiness for Isaac can be attained. A place made up of people who will discover him – and him, himself – in a way no one has before. Because a condition as perplexing and otherworldly as autism needs professionals and carers to lay the groundwork for others to tread carefully.

I hear of a holistic approach, where he is solely in the hands of experts. A joined up support where he’ll benefit from occupational and speech therapy, yoga, sensory integration and more. Where there’s a necessary and welcome very low ratio between pupil and teacher. Plus a pastoral care that sits above everything. Knowledge of autism unparalleled. The condition respected so the child can be pushed appropriately. A balance that only the most skilled and informed professionals can perhaps keep.


There’s psychotherapy too – a potentially unsettling idea for a parent. However, when aligned with strategies emanating from the school, the thought becomes bracing.

Some preliminary sessions with the psychotherapist have told us what we expected. That the battle between autistic and non-autistic traits is being lost. Obeying his orders means living in a regime that’s doing none of us favours. That the relentless repetition leads to mindlessness. That we are accommodating not addressing this mindlessness. That, above all, he’s anxious, worried, on edge primarily because the world and its vagaries simply doesn’t work for him.


And making the world work for him will be painstaking and harsh and challenging. Just assessing the sensory processing hell he clearly experiences (beyond the straightforward autistic ones of routine, order, self-stimulation) makes me realise the urgent intervention needed. Streaking through his body and mind are sensitivities that need dealing with. Wanting to be squeezed, demanding pressure. Aversion to so much clothing and all labels. Needing to smell people. His many food phobias. Freaked by dirt. Terrorised by the irrational movements of animals. Pigeons in particular and therefore anywhere associated with them. His clumsy and poor motor skills and lack of body awareness work against him in ways I can only imagine. The torment he gets from certain noise and smells. All unpredictable, all potentially everywhere.

Now, at last, I know a team is in place. One week in, I sense an ever so subtle aura of delight is emerging from him. Replacing the mainstream school scrabbling about, are the people who will know what’s best and truly deliver for him. Now he’s somewhere that possesses the tools to make my boy happy. Which is the least he deserves.

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