Asperger, Us, and the Yomim Noraim

The “us” are non-Asperger people. For those who live with Asperger Syndrome (AS), much of life is about navigating the strange rules that we “typicals” impose on them. Understanding how they do it might help and inspire some of us in the avodah of the coming days.

Imagine that you had been told for as long as you could remember that you suffered from something called Asperger Syndrome, and this is why people thought and treated you as somewhat – different. Then, one day, they told you that AS no longer existed. They couldn’t confidently tell you why, but they cautioned that the reclassification might – just might – affect the programs and services to which you had previously been entitled. Previously, they thought you were different for one reason. Now they still thought you were different, but for other reasons. Maybe.

This happened on May 22nd of this year, to be precise, when the American Psychiatric Association released the DSM-5, its latest revision of its manual of diagnoses. Previously, AS had been seen as related to, but distinct from, autism. The revision created a new cholent, putting both groups on the same continuum, now to be known as Autism Spectrum Disorder. AS as a diagnosis has disappeared.

It was one of the lesser imponderables that Asperger people (or former Asperger people ) have to deal with. So much else of the way the rest of us run our world makes so little sense to them.

In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. (For the sake of simplicity, I will use the term that most of us still use, the APA to the contrary. The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)

“Open” is somewhat of an understatement. He has written about the world seen through the eyes of AS people, including how he and his wife interacted during courtship. (They would ask each other to explain the reactions of other people: “Did I just do something inappropriate?”)

Inappropriate, that is, to everyone else. AS people have no problem functioning in most areas of life, often outpacing others. They are seen by “us,” however, as just not “getting it,” i.e., they are not as responsive to social cues as we are. They may continue a conversation without noticing that we have tuned out. They may blurt something out that we wouldn’t, or fail to respond to a hint that we think they should get. They have a hard time figuring out whether we mean something tongue-in-cheek, or seriously.

At several times during our typically-long leyl Shabbos seudah, Mrs. AS inexplicably bolted from the table, only to return without explanation a short while later. Mr. AS told us afterwards that functioning in a social setting can be extremely stressful for AS people, because they have to process each line of incoming conversation, without pause.

Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.

In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.

It occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.

Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.

Franz Kafka’s The Castle came to mind when I visited Prague on the occasion of the 400th yarhzeit of the Maharal. You could not miss the imposing figure of the castle that gave the book its name. It was once the home of the Holy Roman Emperor, standing on a hilltop overlooking the city. One interpretation had it that Kafka’s castle was a metaphor for the way in which G-d runs His world, or at least the way it appeared to human beings. The castle stood in the distance, aloof, removed. Its ways remained mysterious, if not contradictory. Its most important resident was inaccessible. Kafka was railing at the incomprehensibility of G-d and His ways

Kafka aside, this is not the way we Torah Jews understand HKBH, even as we cannot understand much of what we observe. We have a deeply ingrained sense of His goodness, and His sensibility. We trust that He is not arbitrary, and that all His rules are for our sakes, not His.

Perhaps we can take away some inspiration from the way AS people manage to get by, without all the advantages that we have.

A final thought. AS people live their lives with an ongoing feeling that the rules that are forced upon them by everyone else are really irrelevant. Irrelevance can sometimes be a good thing. והותירך ד’ אלוקך בכל מעשה ידיך The Kedushas Levi reads this as, “Hashem will make your actions superfluous and irrelevant in dealing with you. He will not limit His beracha to you by the good you have done. He has a vested interest as a loving, giving G-d to showering you with blessing beyond what you deserve.”

May we all merit in the upcoming judgment to be seen as irrelevant.

בברכת כתיבה וחתימה טובה

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9 Responses

  1. Yossel says:

    Neurotypicals struggle with moral requirements that come naturally to those with Aspergers.
    Aspergers people also tend to be very honest and reliable. It’s rare for them to tell a lie, steal, renege on a promise or even be late for work.

    Perhaps it can be argued that AS people struggle with man’s arbitrary rules, but comply more naturally with HaShem’s rules.

  2. Yehuda says:

    One of the things we daven for every day is “shetargileinu beTorasecha.” Torah observance shouldn’t be something strange or arbitrary to us. Indeed, it isn’t, as we all learned the entire Torah before we were born and returning to it is the most natural thing – for our neshamos, not our bodies. The problem only starts when we get too used to following our baser desires and don’t struggle to regain neshamah awareness.
    Also, we hope that we will not always be fighting the same battles. Indeed, that is rarely the case. If we are moving up, as we should be, then our challenges will constantly be mutating, and ditto if we move down R”l.
    But strange and arbitrary? How could Torah ever be perceived like that?
    In answer to Yossel September 2: I think it would be wise to leave the two issues, that of AS, and that of morality, separate. There are people with AS who are naturally more inclined to tov and others whose moral challenges are more acute. Just as there are those with other physical disabilities (and surely AS is a brain disability?) who are better or worse than others.
    Personally, I have a very little knowledge of one person with AS, my brother-in-law’s brother. I recall my sister telling me of the time her baby was playing on the floor and this guy with AS circled him, chanting repetitively, “Smack the baby.”
    There are certainly those with AS who are constantly checking up “Did I do that right?” or “What should I have said instead?” But unfortunately, there are probably just as many who lack even that awareness, or who have not made the decision to try to fit in.
    That being said, I don’t think “bad” people with AS are any more dangerous than “bad” people without. But not less dangerous, either.

    [YA – Reread the Moreh, 3rd chelek, in the taamei hamitzvos discussion, and refresh your memory about what he says about the details of mitzvos]

  3. Yehudit Spero says:

    Fantastic article. It makes me see things in a completely different light. I hope that this article will get to a large audience. Worth the read for sure. Shanna tova and thanks. Excellent “mashal”.

  4. Raymond says:

    The wife of a childhood friend of mine, thinks that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. While self-diagnosis is inherently biased, I of course disagree with her. What I have been tested as being, is an extreme introvert. I do not know all of the implications of this, but one is very similar to what was described above, which may be why my friend’s wife thinks that about me. See, I also process information very slowly. I am not stupid, at least I hope I am not; on the contrary, so many people have remarked to me how intelligent I am, that I suppose I believe them to a point. However, I am not quick on my feet either, perhaps because social situations do make me feel uncomfortable. In one way or another, I very often get the feeling that people disapprove of this or that aspect of me, and would not mind if I simply disappeared. So, while talking to a person, I may not grasp right away everything that is being said. Only later on, when I am by myself, and relive those conversations in my head over and over again, do they begin to make any sense to me.

    Plus, I do not like to understand things on a superficial level. I must analyze people’s words over and over again, and try to fit it all in with things I have read, and lectures I have heard, leaving no stone unturned in the discussion taking place, all in my head. I also prefer the old and proven, to the new and experimental. So the Internet is a paradox for me, because its newness should repel me, yet I am always on it, as it allows me to respond to people when I am way from them, by myself, and thus not feeling pressure from them. Even the kind of music I like, tends to be both melodic and harmonious…for that means it is making sense…and slow, as that fits in with my contemplative nature. Probably a fitting example of this is Pachelbel’s very famous Canon in D major.

    As for Franz Kafka, I can very much sympathize with his worldview, as the world so often does not make sense to me. It is not easy to trust a G-d that appears to be indifferent to the terrible suffering and pure evil that makes up so much of our cruel world. I do not think that anybody can deny that we live in a broken world. On the other hand, I have to wonder how different that Franz Kafka’s worldview might have been, had he been given a solid Torah education.

  5. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful and sensitive piece on Asperger’s.

    While I understand the analogy you are trying to make, I think there are two issues with it. First, I believe the “rules” that are at issue are more what we’d call social mores. People will AS don’t have trouble following the rules of society, e.g traffic laws, tax laws, etc. (As one of the commenters pointed out they are probably better at them!) It would probably more akin to a person who never experienced Shabbos being thrown into a family Shabbos setting and all the nuances involved. (You know the ring in mouth joke?)

    Secondly, I’m not sure that “the weight of so many restrictions and limitations” we are “groaning” under are mostly “G-d’s rules”. The number actual Godly commandants we need to adhere to are relatively few and the number of rules that are “not humanly comprehended” are a fraction of those. (I think, as maaminim, bnei maaminim, we could all live with the occasional Shatnez restriction or Para Aduma conundrum.) What many may be “groaning” under are the ever increasing number of man-made rules, restrictions, and newfound “customs”. Most, if not all, of which should be completely understandable and logical. And maybe that’s a better analogy. Many of our “rules” are more like the social mores that people with Asperger’s have so much trouble navigating.

  6. lawrence kaplan says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein: A thoughtful and thought provoking article. It occurs to me that on the internet most of us find ourselves in an AS-like situation. We lack the cues present in face to face or regular snail mail or even one on one e-mail interactions that enable us to read the other person’s tone or meaning. Note how people have to provide artificial cues: LOL or smileys to assure the public they are communicating with that they are not being serious and not to take offense. Perhaps if we were aware of this we would act with more care in our internet interactions. To the contrary, alas, the medium seems to encourage shooting from the hip. Let’s remember that when we are on the internet we are in a socially artificial situation and act with more caution and greater care.

    On another note, I was somewhat surprised by your comment “We trust that… all His rules are for our sakes, not for His.” What of “Avodah tzorekh gavoah”?

    A Ketivah ve-Hatimah Tovah to all.

    [YA – I think I am going to weigh in as Maharalian on that one. If I read him correctly (IIRC, one of the first perakim in Tifferes Yisrael), our attitude in performing mitzvos should be that HKBH wants it (kevayachol) and demands it, and we therefore comply. We try to perform with this understanding, artificially banishing from our consciousness the ultimate reality that He needs nothing, and anything He demands of us is for our our good. KVT]

  7. Shua Cohen says:

    > “We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us.”

    I think what troubles many of us in the current climate of Orthodoxy (and I wonder if this is truer of BTs than FFBs) is the question of how many of the “minority” of rules are, in fact, “His rules” at all. This has been an era of chumras and stifling takanahs, bannings and issurim, slanderous invective against shomrei Torah & mitzvot coming from the bottom of Jewish frum society and the top as well (Rachmana Litzlan), the likes of which, perhaps, have the Ribbono Shel Olam shaking His head in wonder and dismay. While many of us simply ignore the dictates from on high (purported by their advocates to come from On High), others take to stadiums for oratorical displays of displeasure with the world, or worse, to the streets yelling and screeming like lunatics. How has extremism in defense of religion become such a virtue to so many bnei Torah in our day and age? It’s all very disconcerting to this particular BT.

    [YA – It is true of plenty of FFBs as well. But who’s counting?]

  8. YM Goldstein says:

    Shua, do you have a Rav? If you do, ask him if these things you hear about in the Media apply to you or not? In most cases, he will probably tell you not.
    If you don’t have a Rav…it is really difficult to be Orthodox without a Rav.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    When acting on behalf of those they love, people don’t mind attending to the many fine details needed to succeed.

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