What does Seder night offer the autistic child?

The 1,000-year-old educational philosophy at the heart of the Hagadda is recognized as the most effective tool for autism.

Autism Haggada 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
Autism Haggada 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
Seder night is an experience that links generations, creating a common thread of memory going right back to Egypt. During the Seder, we witness a masterful night of education as we understand that this chain has only survived due to the extreme attention we give to each and every link; to each and every child.
What is remarkable is that the 1,000-year-old educational philosophy at the heart of the Hagadda is fast becoming recognized as the most effective tool we have to meet the challenge of autism, the world’s fastest-growing serious developmental disability.
It is estimated that 1 in 88 children have some kind of autism today, and while there is no known cure, thousands of children have shown significant improvement resulting from early diagnosis and use of effective interventions that seek to understand to and respond to the individual symptoms and behaviors of each child.
Through Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a wide spectrum of autistic disorders are today being treated by applying Independent Treatment Plans (IDPs) for children through careful real-time monitoring and responding to the individual characteristics of each child.
However, this “ABA” approach was pioneered first by Judaism in the Hagadda thousands of years ago. The Torah teaches, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” The rabbis were precise in their understanding of the word , “your son,” as the Mishna in Pesachim teaches: “A father should teach his son according to his own level.”
The famous four sons of the Hagadda emphasize that no children are the same and that each requires a different approach to reach them. For some children a highlevel discussion is the ticket, and for others we need to be more creative. The Gemara relates that one famed rabbi would move the table away at random moments throughout the meal simply to spark a reaction among the children – perhaps those children whose attention was fading.
The message of Passover is literally “peh sach,” the “mouth that speaks.” By spotlighting four very different sons, the Haggada reminds us that not all children communicate easily.
Around a third to half of individuals with autism do not develop enough natural speech to meet their daily communication needs. Difficulties in communication can be present from the first year of life, and may include delayed onset of speech along with unusual gestures, signs and social cues that a child may adjust according to the social context they find themselves in.
Within the wide spectrum of conditions in the diagnostic realm of autism, it is even possible to find some that parallel the four children we read about in the Hagadda. Perhaps we meet the wise son in the child with Asperger’s Syndrome, who although deemed to have a higher-than-normal IQ has significant difficulties with social interaction.
We can see children who display behavior which can be anti-social and disruptive, sparked by angry frustration at not being able to communicate what they are feeling. Indeed, the simple son can find his parallel with the child trapped inside a body that hears the question, but cannot respond. Many autistic children carry this badge: of the “child who cannot ask,” slow to develop and sometimes introverted an unable to communicate well, if at all, with the world around them.
The Seder night is well known for being a long evening; the Gemara teaches that Rabbi Akiva would hand out nuts throughout the day to keep the children awake and excited for the experience. At least one answer for why this is such a long evening is that the process of reaching children each at their own level takes time, commitment, patience and belief. It is here that Passover and autism share a common thread.
THE TISHMA School & Center for Autism in Jerusalem is one of a handful of autism schools and treatment programs in Israel which specialize in utilization of the ABA method of autism intervention. In the US, Canada and the UK, ABA treatment for children with autism is considered to be the intervention/education and treatment methodology of first choice.
The ABA-oriented teacher is constantly observing each child individually, looking for hints at how they may be trying to communicate with the world around them, slowly and patiently monitoring communication patterns with the aim of gradually unlocking and bringing each child, step by step, closer to more normative communication behaviors. It can at times take months and even years to see positive results, but the school and the ABA methodology is continually proving to be the most successful chance these children have to develop and lead meaningful, communicative, productive and happy lives.
At one time this ABA method was considered only to be the purview of the wealthy. However, Tishma has remarkably managed to bring down the cost and make this method available to a much larger population than would normally be able to access this type of help.
For a family with an autistic child or family member, the Seder ought to involve a little special preparation and extra consideration, in areas such as: how to help them endure the long meal; feel included; ensuring the child is able to participate and understand some of what is happening.
There are no easy answers and as the Hagadda teaches, each child is unique and deserves a unique approach. However, perhaps there are some useful basic ideas that can help. Tishma recommends employing the three C’s of competence, connection and contribution.
Young people need to be recognized when they’re doing something right, to feel they are competent and to be given opportunities to develop specific skills. This could mean for example finding particular jobs during the Seder that fit each child’s ability and skills. In addition, the feeling of being connected and part of a community helps children know they aren’t alone if they struggle and that they can develop creative solutions to problems. Perhaps this is achieved by just being together with the whole family, although singing and acting things out together could enhance this atmosphere of connectedness even more. Lastly, the experience of contributing something from themselves gives these children self-respect and dignity.
If this approach can preserve the memory of leaving Egypt, there is hope that it can also help children with autism to remove the communication barriers that exist for them and allow them to unlock their true potential.
The writer is is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and psychotherapist both in Israel and the US, currently serving as the director of development for the Tishma School & Center for Autism in Jerusalem.