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A Failure to Communicate

By Hannah Brown
The most commonly used euphemism for autism in Hebrew is “bayat tikshoret” – communication problem. As the mother of an autistic teenage boy living in Israel, I like this term, because it neatly summarizes my son’s difficulties. It’s usually hard for Danny to express what he wants to say. Ironically, though, when he does manage to get the words out, he can do it in either Hebrew or English, whichever language is called for at the moment. Of course, there are many bilingual children in Israel, but it is quite unusual for a child with autism to be able to speak two languages.
But it’s not impossible.

When my family prepared to move back to Israel from New York, Danny was four. The speech therapists and experts who worked with him there warned me that he could not possibly handle both English and Hebrew. He was born in New York, and heard both languages at home from the day he was born. I never worried much about it before he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three, because he never seemed to have any trouble switching back and forth at home.

Moving a family of four (and two cats) from New York to Jerusalem was challenging enough without adding worry about language to the mix, but I was anxious about Danny’s transition to a mostly Hebrew world. And it was my one worry that turned out to be needless. I went with him to his “gan tikshoret” (communication preschool) for the first few days, to translate the Hebrew to English for him. But by the third day, the teacher asked why I was still there. It turned out, he could translate faster than I could.

Now I often use him instead of an electronic dictionary. His grasp of the two languages is that good. Often, if I am struggling for a word in Hebrew, he will come out with it easily. Who has a communication problem here? To think we were thinking of sending him for a communication course at somewhere like USC so he’d find it easier to communicate in his professional working life, by the looks of things, Danny will do just fine.

So Hebrew wasn’t a problem. Other areas of Danny’s absorption into Israeli life have been more complicated. People with autism are generally described as being high- or low-functioning, but Danny’s level is called medium. What does that mean? That he is high-functioning in some arenas and low in others, which essentially describes every person on the planet.

His lowest functioning comes when he has to sit still. He is very hyper and sometimes his fidgeting is extremely annoying to people around him. He tries very hard to behave in a way that does not upset people, but it isn’t simple for him. And although Israelis have a reputation for being very easygoing, I find that people are often so frustrated from all the inconvenience they have to put up with that are eager to lash out at a child who seems badly behaved. Danny has been called every foul name you can imagine by adults here, including “mifager masriach” (stinking retard). It bothers me more than it bothers him, but I still think it bothers him.

On the other hand, many people have been extremely kind. Sometimes religious people tell me there is something amazing about him and recite blessings. Of course I think he’s amazing – I’m his mom – but I am touched that people see the good in him.

The one aspect of living here with him that is difficult for me to adjust to is the fact that Israelis are not shy about asking, “Why didn’t you get prenatal testing?” Meaning: Why didn’t I get an abortion instead of having Danny? I usually explain that there is no prenatal test for autism, which satisfies them. I wish I had the courage to say, “How can you ask that?” and explain that I love Danny as much as they love their children. And that, like Japanese novelist Kenzaburo Oe, who has written extensively about his brain-damaged son and whose work has been a great inspiration to me, I think every life has value.

However, I do understand where this question about Danny comes from. The founders of Israel wanted to create a new kind of strong Jew, one who would never be at the mercy of external enemies. But that goal has created a culture where being different and weak is regarded with little tolerance – at least in some quarters. Pregnant women here get far more prenatal testing than I did in New York, and I’ve heard of doctors here urging women to abort fetuses when relatively minor problems were detected, such as a cleft palate. I don’t judge anyone who chooses to have an abortion, for whatever reason. But I still find it hard when someone asks me about the prenatal testing, the implication being that I should have had an abortion. And I can’t manage to tell them how much this upsets me.

This is my communication problem. As rates of autism increase around the world – the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta released statistics in late March saying that one in 88 children is diagnosed with autism in the US — I imagine that Israelis will gradually become more sophisticated and sensitive about the subject. A recent and popular television series, “Pilpelim Zehubim” (Yellow Peppers) painted a sympathetic portrait of a family in the Negev struggling after their son is diagnosed with autism. It will take some time, but I hope that one day, I’ll be asked how people can help those with communication problems, rather than why I chose to bring a child like Danny into the world.

Hannah Brown is the author of a novel, “If I Could Tell You,” about families raising children with autism, that was just published by Vantage Point Books. Read more about it at hannahbrownbooks.com. She is the movie critic for the Jerusalem Post. You can read her column for the “Modern Love” section of The New York Times, HERE.

Image credit: michel D’anastosio

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1 Comment

  1. themiddle

    4/22/2012 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for this article. I think that in some ways Israel’s smaller population plays a role here, as does the fact that a portion of that population are people who made aliyah. Both factor into a smaller overall population (even if percentages are similar) of people with autism or people with learning challenges. This translates, in part, to less familiarity with the problem in the general population and fewer resources. This will improve in time, I believe.

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