It is Shabbat afternoon and my son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, kicks our bedroom door until it breaks. We are all trapped in the bedroom— my husband and me, our son and our dog. My son screams that he wants to die and that we can’t possibly love him. When he discovers that he broke our bedroom door and we are all locked in, he gouges his face with his nails, creating bloody scratches that he assesses in the mirror to gauge if he has done enough damage to himself for breaking our door. I embrace him and hug him from behind, gently placing my clasped hands over his clenched fists to prevent him from hurting himself more.
Yet we are all still locked in the bedroom. My daughter holds court in the lounge, playing cards with a group of friends. I suspect this is the immediate cause of his outburst; his sister was busy with her friends and wasn’t playing with him. I’m not certain and he can’t tell me why he is so angry because he probably does not know.
I call to my daughter. She answers that she is in the middle of a game.
“It’s really important that you come now.” I explain that our bedroom door is broken and I will slide her the key under the door so she can unlock it from the outside. But the key doesn’t open the door, because the wooden frame is now curved and no longer in alignment with the lock.
She kicks the door back into alignment and she is eventually able to free us. The dog shoots out of our bedroom and is not seen for hours. My husband goes to mincha and my son and I go to the living room as if nothing has happened.
The root cause to my son’s anger is what he is learning in school. He’s learning about forgiveness. He cannot understand the concept because one of the symptoms of Asperger’s is endless rumination. Individuals with Asperger’s contemplate their past behavior and obsess over every real and imagined imperfection in themselves and in others. The problem is that being imperfect is an inescapable part of being human. That is why forgiveness exists in the first place.
In cheder (school), my son’s rebbe explains that if you quarrel with someone you should ask for forgiveness and make peace. So when my son has a fight with the boy sitting next to him, he asks for forgiveness. Then he goes home from school early and wants to miss school for the next week. “But why?” I ask him. “So you had a little fight. You asked for forgiveness and now it’s over. We move on.”
“I can’t move on,” he says. “I asked for forgiveness, but just because he forgives me doesn’t mean I forgive him. It doesn’t mean the fight is over. I’m still angry at him. If I go back to school and I have to sit next to him, it will be so hard for me. I asked for forgiveness because my rebbe told me to, but it’s not real. The fight is not over in my heart. It’s sheker (dishonesty).”
We’re talking and that’s good. The problem is how seriously my son takes this conversation and the conclusion he draws about himself: “I am a rasha (a wicked person),” he tells me. “I don’t forgive even when my rebbe tells me I have to.”
My son unintentionally opens a theological quandary: Can any of us truly forgive another person simply because we are commanded to?
We remember and reflect on our past mistakes to learn from them: it’s a desirable spiritual quality, but my son takes this to an extreme and it becomes a permanent obstacle. He cannot move forward. He can’t imagine that his friends in school would ever forgive him because he can’t forgive himself.
He can’t understand that his way of looking at the world is not like that of his ten-year-old peers. The technical term for this a deficit in the theory of mind: he is unable to look at the world from another person’s perspective. In his case, it’s the minds of his classmates.
My son’s learns in a mainstream cheder, and his classmates are neuro-typical—normal boys who listen politely to what the rebbe says; ask forgiveness when they are told to whether they mean it or not; and then go right on fighting, forgiving, and forgetting about it the next day. They move on. Hopefully, as a result of what the rebbe has said, their fights are a little less intense and a little less violent. But not necessarily: quarreling, and settling these quarrels with their fists, is a developmental stage that they will hopefully move past by the time they are teenagers. For now, these boys continue fighting, forgiving, and moving on, on an almost daily basis. This is called being a normal fifth-grade boy. This is called childhood.
Not for my son. He simply cannot imagine that his classmates think and feel differently about their behavior than his rebbe does. He can’t imagine that they don’t take what their rebbe says as seriously as he does.
My son’s Asperger’s world is defined by black and white thinking, a world of absolutes. In this world, there is no room for mistakes. It is heavy burden for a ten-year-old. Sometimes he lashes out defiantly. Sometimes he is overcome by remorse and self-mutilates. Mostly he worries about losing control, about making a mistake, about that one wrong move that will define him as evil forever. When he is not worrying about the future, he is ruminating about the past and the mistakes he has already made. He can’t understand the concept of childhood or what it feels like to be a child.
My son is the pride of the cheder. He started learning Mishnah Brochos when he was six, and he still remembers what he learned. He made a siyum on all of Seder Nezikim when he was nine. People think I must be so proud of having a son like this. I would be proud, if I wasn’t so sad over his social isolation.
I call his rebbe.
“How is it going in class? How is my son doing?” I ask.
“Great!” He responds with enthusiasm.
“Yes everything is great.”
“And socially?” I ask.
Here he pauses.
“Well, he sits at his desk during the break, waiting for the next class to begin,” my son’s rebbe explains. “I don’t know why he doesn’t just join the other boys. He needs to initiate and ask them what they’re doing. They would let him play if he showed some interest. They’re nice boys. But he just sits there, fiddling with his Rubik cube and waiting for the break to end. A whole day can pass without his saying a word to another boy.”
Being religious has not caused my son to have Asperger’s Syndrome, and becoming non-religious would not cure his symptoms. But the manner in which he expresses his anxiety, and the nature of his worries, are definitely expressed in religious terms. If only he didn’t put such tremendous pressure on himself to be that complete tzaddik he learns about in school, and then have such tremendous meltdowns when he can’t live up to those expectations, things would be different.
I daven for my son every day. We have good days and bad days. The good days are very good, and the bad days are very bad. When the bad days are really bad, I tell myself that Hashem doesn’t make mistakes, and he entrusted this child to us because He believes in our dedication to our son, and our ability to intervene in his life in a positive way. For me, as his mother, this does not simply mean that he learns enough Gemarah that his rebbe and I can bask in the brilliance of this young prodigy. It means helping him gain the social skills to find a friend to talk to during the break between classes.
At first, his rebbe suggests we send a chess set to school so that my son can play a game with his classmates. My son’s rebbe even offers to play the first game wit him to create a buzz so that other kids join. This works for a few days. Until my son gets comfortable playing chess in class, and begins to beat each of his classmates, one by one. Soon nobody wants to play chess with him anymore, and my son returns to fiddling with his Rubik’s cube alone during breaks.
“Any progress?” I ask the rebbe a week later on the phone.
“No,” he admits. “Not much.”
It is a mistake to think that people with Asperger’s don’t want to connect with others. They simply don’t know how. My son wants friends. He is lonely and isolated. He likes chess because it is a game with rules. The bishop moves diagonally, the rook moves in straight lines. Reaching out to another child is a game without rules and involvement with another child has too many risks for him. What if the child doesn’t like him? What if they eventually get into a fight? What if he has to forgive his friend even if he doesn’t really mean it? Faced with all that uncertainty, he chooses to play alone.
For now, I suppose the challenge of forgiveness is my own. I need to forgive myself for being unable to teach my son a lesson he is not yet ready to learn. I need to forgive his rebbe for being unable to help him find a friend and for being unable to understand what keeps my son locked in isolation. I need to forgive the people who see my son’s brilliance, but don’t see his pain. Most of all, I need to forgive my son for not being ready to learn the lesson that one day he will have to learn: that sometimes we all need to forgive ourselves.
The author has requested to remain anonymous.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.