A Self-described “Jewish, autistic, arts and craftsy music yogi nerd,” Emme Goldhardt, beautifully reframes autism inside a “D’Var Torah.” The following blog shows the text of her speech inside her synagogue, but the video may be far more compelling. To watch, please click here. (Note: Since publication, the author has changed her name to Emme Goldhardt.)
Copyright @ 2022 by Emme Goldhardt
My Hebrew name is Emunah. Emunah is most often translated as “faith,” but when it first appears in the Torah, Genesis 15:6 the verse says: והאמן ביהוה which translates to “and he put his trust in Adonai.” Emunah also shares the root of the word “Amen” which means, to put trust into something.
My Jewish-Hebrew name is Emunah, and I am autistic. I have autistic spectrum disorder (or ASD).
“Autism isn’t an illness, it’s a different way of being human”. This is a quote from the book Uniquely Human by Dr. Barry Prizant, a Jewish speech language pathologist with more than 40 years of experience and considered one of the world’s leading scholars in autism.
In autism, the brain is wired differently, and therefore often programmed differently, than a “neurotypical” brain. Some defining characteristics of autism include difficulties in communication and social interaction, restricted and repetitive behavior, sensory processing issues, and difficulties staying regulated emotionally and physiologically. Autism is a spectrum, with the combination of defining traits manifesting in different ways in each autistic individual .
Because autism is not an illness, there is no need for a cure, however- support, accommodations, and methods to manage and/or navigate the challenges and barriers that can come with autism are essential. From Uniquely Human “For the vast majority of people on the spectrum, autism can be best understood as a disability of trust. Because of their neurological challenges, people with autism face tremendous obstacles of three kinds: trusting their body, trusting the world around them, and- most challenging of all- trusting other people.”Many of us with ASD live in a near constant state of hypervigilance, meaning our brains are always on alert for danger. This often results in the fight-flight-or-freeze response.
In this week’s Torah portion, parashat Ki Tisa, the Israelites experience a situation similar to what one on the spectrum experiences. When Moses does not return from Mount Sinai at the time that he says he will, the Israelites become fearful and angry, overwhelmed with worry that something might have happened to Moses, and terrified that they’ve been abandoned. In their desperation to cope with the fear and despair, they ask Aaron to build them a god. This is interesting for a few reasons, but I’m going to divert for just a moment to make an important note. The Israelites were very likely not only traumatized from having been slaves themselves, but were carrying hundreds of years of generational trauma of slavery, and thus living in a state of hypervigilance. Traumatized individuals often prefer the familiar, no matter how unpleasant, over the unknown. Individuals with ASD are also prone to seeking familiarity and predictability.
So the Israelites, seeking a way to regulate and feel safe, reverted to a “known,” by building an Egyptian style relic to represent God. Given that idolatry is a nearly unthinkable sin, this was a rather unhealthy coping mechanism for them to use, but perhaps they were just aiming for survival?
I certainly feel empathy for them, because from my own experiences, I know what it’s like to manage fear in unproductive ways. This isn’t because I want to harm and/or upset myself or others. Extreme fear reduces the functioning of the neocortex (the part of the brain responsible for speech, logic, and higher thinking skills), and the individual is left functioning in the “reptilian brain,” which is instinctual survival.
The Israelites may have resorted to an unhealthy way to regulate in this instance, but I think they were trying to find Emunah- something they could trust, since Moses had “abandoned” them. Whether neurotypical or autistic, spirituality can provide amazing ways to regulate oneself.
From Uniquely Human, “Religious services include layers of comforting rituals. Chanting and praying, symbolic gestures and body movements, to enable people to let go of the worries and trivialities of every day life and enter a higher spiritual realm. For people with autism, comforting rituals and coping mechanisms come in all varieties. Moving in particular ways, speaking in particular patterns, carrying familiar items, lining up objects to create predictable and familiar surroundings, even proximity to certain people can serve as a regulating strategy.”
Moses finally comes down from tHe mountain, sees what has happened with the Israelites, and in a burst of anger, shatters the tablets.
As a person with ASD, I can deeply relate to both the Israelites and Moses in this episode. There have been times in my life when my autism, combined with co-occurring mental and physical illness, and the dumpster fire the world has been becoming, have left me in despair, and like the Israelites, I’ve responded in desperate and harmful ways. And there have been times when the people I’ve counted on and trusted lost their cool, and like Moses, shattered the delicate tablets of my trust.
Very recently, my actions, coming from a place of nearly unmanageable fear, caused immense, shattering stress to my loved ones. I strive to be a good person, so the guilt and shame I feel over causing my loved ones harm is crushing, but I know I never had bad intentions or meant to hurt anyone. This is why I have to believe that both in the case of the Israelites, and my own experiences, it was trauma and hypervigilance that led to bad behavior.
But the Israelites story doesn’t end there. And neither does mine.
After shattering the tablets, Moses appeals to God, and God decides to forgive and spare the lives of the Israelites. God needs to take a break from being in their presence for a bit, to allow a reset. This time, they need to trust that God and Moses will stay with them.
Autism advocate Michael John Carley has said, “the opposite of anxiety isn’t calm; it’s trust.”
I don’t know what my future holds, and it’s beyond terrifying. I do know that like the Israelites during their time in the wilderness, I will again have crises of trust, and I will make mistakes. I have to trust that, like the Israelites, God and my loved ones will forgive me. I am doing my best to live up to my name- Emunah. Guided by the faith I possess, acting on trust.
Ultimately, after many trials and tribulations, the Israelites do develop Emunah, faith in God and in themselves, which enables them to reach the Promised Land. And God and Moses find ways to forgive and stick with the struggling Israelites, despite their missteps. Regardless of where an individual fall on the spectrum between neurotypical and neurodiverse, may we all be able to find and draw upon Emunah to regulate in the face of fear and the unknown. And when we are in a position to support a loved one in need, may our Emunah give us the fortitude and patience to say, “I may need a break, but I’m still with you.” Then, together, we can reach our Promised Lands.