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From Autism Awareness to Acceptance: It's Really About Tolerance!

From Autism Awareness to Acceptance: It's Really About Tolerance!

On the one hand, I’m one of those people who think it is a little ridiculous that we have a “month” for virtually everything. Awareness, when it needs to be raised, should happen all the time, and the things we appreciate, we should always appreciate – not just for a month or a day each year, but all year long (yeah, I know, Hallmark loves me...) Do we really need a National Pet Month (it’s May, if you’re wondering) or a Dance Appreciation Month (July)?

But then I think about the significant things that can happen when passionate, like-minded individuals come together for a common purpose, and I can see the value in having a dedicated day, or even a month. It can renew our sense of enthusiasm, help us to raise funds along with awareness, and provide opportunities to both teach and learn. It’s why I support Jewish Disability Awareness Month each February, and it’s why I am writing this post in honor of Autism Awareness Month, which many (including me) actually prefer to call Autism Acceptance Month. To be even more specific, I write this post in honor of a couple of amazing people. 

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to learn about Sam Gelfand, who was then about to become bar mitzvah, as he had developed a unique mitzvah project. (Many synagogues ask their b’nai mitzvah students to develop a project to demonstrate their commitment to performing mitzvoth, commandments, in addition to preparing to read Torah.) Often, these projects become simple collections of money or stuff, to be donated to good causes – but Sam was doing something significant. You see, Sam has Asperger’s syndrome, and he decided it was important to teach others what it was like to live with Asperger’s, in the hope that people could learn to be more tolerant of one another.

What began as a B’nai Mitzvah Project soon mushroomed into a multi-state speaking tour, including appearances on behalf of Autism Speaks! Now, nearly three years later, Sam is still presenting his story to audiences of all ages. His message is delivered with passion and humor, engaging those who listen in a way that is real and current. He speaks of the years he was bullied, of the many obstacles he has overcome, and of his plans for the future, all while reinforcing his message of tolerance and acceptance of others.

But Sam is not the whole story. While he is amazing in his own right, the minute you meet his mother, Allison Craigie, you realize that she is the key to Sam’s success. She is the epitome of what we hope we can each be as a parent: supportive, committed, determined. In my post  “Helping Parents Find Their Way,” I reference those parents who become strong advocates for their children; Allison is the true embodiment of this vision. I am honored to have gotten to know her and to call her my friend, and I am really proud to share that she is featured in the new book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum, released Tuesday on World Autism Day.

If you have the opportunity, bring Sam in to speak to your community, Jewish or secular. And while he’s there, ask Allison to lead a conversation with, or a workshop for, parents.

See? Even I can make good use a dedicated month. Happy Autism Acceptance Month!

Lisa Friedman is the education co-director at Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, New Jersey. This position includes overseeing an extensive Special Needs program within the Religious School designed to help students successfully learn Hebrew, learn about their Jewish heritage and feel connected to their Jewish community. Lisa also consults with congregations to develop inclusive practices for staff, clergy, and families through dialogue, interactive workshops and awareness training. She blogs at Removing the Stumbling Block.

Lisa Friedman
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Published: 4/04/2013

Categories: Jewish Life, Health & Wellness, Family, Parenting
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