If I am Only For Myself, What Am I? Tikkun Olam, Asperger’s, and Haiti

by Elise Ronan

If I am not for myself who will be for me?

If I am only for myself what am I?

If not now when?

— Rabbi Hillel

It is a Jewish tenet of faith to make the world in which we live a better place. It is called tikkun olam.

Don’t you just love those know-it-alls who say that persons with autism are incapable of caring about others? That those with autism spectrum disorders are so self-involved they do not know that others even exist, that others have feelings, and that others have desires or needs? Actually, I would say that they are describing the most materialistic, self-indulgent people in our modern consumer-driven society. I would also hazard a guess that these materialistic narcissists are not persons with autism.

I don’t know where it comes from that the professionals who work within the autistic community come up with these hard and fast rules. There is such a varied spectrum of characteristics that if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism. You know how autism affects one individual, and that doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else on the spectrum.

I can tell you that my Aspie boys spent this morning loading and packing medical supplies for Haiti. A few weeks ago, they loaded medical supplies for Africa. Last week, Collegeman gave away hundreds of dollars of his book money to Save Darfur (we had to have a talk about that). Highschoolboy likes when I give to the ASPCA and Smile Train. Charity is a way of life for us.

This morning was a great success. Since Collegeman and Highschoolboy had just been there a few weeks ago, the director was well aware of who they were. And since the boys were very familiar with the layout of the warehouse, they were the champs. In fact, there were teenagers there who would turn to Collegeman and get him to help them. We think it’s the facial hair. I understand one of them even called him “sir.” Now that’s cute. Collegeman used to do that to teens with facial hair when he was in middle school, too.

The best part was that, in the middle of the tumult of packing the medical supplies, Collegeman had a discussion with the director of the program about chaos theory, how it applied to what they were doing at the moment, and how, if there were fewer volunteers, they would be more efficient. Leave it to him to try to figure out a way to make things better and to throw a scientific conundrum into the middle of it. (I told you he channels “Sheldon” on a daily basis.) She responded that it was okay, and that she liked all the people, and that she could handle the hubbub. Never heard if he let it go at that; I’ll bet he didn’t. I am sure hubby either intervened or she gave Collegeman another project to do to get him to shift his attention.

I have to tell everyone that Collegeman makes me proud. He may not understand not to give all his money away; it left him short of cash for his books. Well, not really, I bought them for him. He was supposed to have used the money from the summer for his books. I’m trying to teach him a little about taking responsibility since so many of his peers have to work to afford college. I wanted him to understand that his money has to go for some things associated with school, too. But how can you punish him when he gave his money to charity? He didn’t spend it on a video game; he gave it away to save lives. So I let Collegeman earn money doing chores over vacation to work off his books.

I am also not allowed to throw away any old clothes. Both Collegeman and Highschoolboy know about the local community center that takes old clothes and gives it to those less fortunate. During high school, Collegeman used to try to collect food for the food bank. So we also have to give them food periodically. If there is a food drive, clothing drive, money drive, both of the boys are participating. Both understand their obligations to the world at large. Both know that they are members of society at large and that membership comes with obligations.

I wonder how many neurotypical people, the ones psychiatrists say are just fine and without issue in society, spent their three-day weekend helping others. I have decided that these psychiatrists are not going to define my children as to who they will or will not be. It is a Jewish tenet of faith to make the world a better place. We call it tikkun olam. I am going to let this righteous path define the boys. I am going to let Rabbi Hillel define the boys. Then, ultimately, the boys can define themselves.

About the Author: Elise Ronan is the mother of two young men with Asperger’s Syndrome. This piece first appeared on her blog, Raising Asperger’s Kids, and is reprinted here by permission.