Learning About Autism

by Josh Barkin

My commute to the Torah Aura Productions Headquarters (in beautiful Vernon, CA) is kind of long. Or it can be, depending on the unpredictable traffic patterns of the 10 freeway. To pass the time, I listen to a bunch of podcasts. Basically, podcasts are like radio programs that you can download and listen to whenever you want. In fact, all of my favorite podcasts are actually weekly public radio programs that — instead of tuning in to my local NPR station at their scheduled times — I download and listen to whenever I feel like it. My favorites are This American Life (out of WBEZ in Chicago), Radiolab (from WNYC in New York), and Studio 360 (also from WNYC). I download all of these podcasts through iTunes, and they are automatically downloaded to my iPod. Then I hook up the iPod to the car stereo, and I can listen on my way to and from the office. (This sounds very high tech, but it’s actually very easy. Even if you don’t have an iPod, you can use iTunes to download the podcasts and then burn them to a CD.)

This is all a very long way of getting to my point:

This week’s episode of Studio 360 is all about autism, and about people who fall along various points of the autism spectrum. It’s an amazing hour of radio. They interview an author who has Asperger’s syndrome, and they have pieces about autistic kids getting involved in musical theatre and scientists watching movies with autistic adults in order to better understand how people with autism see the world.

It made me think a lot about the autistic kids who’ve been my students in a number of Jewish educational settings. I’ve worked with Asperger’s kids, non-communicative autistic kids, and high-functioning autistic kids. In all cases, my biggest challenge as a teacher was trying to meet the learners where they were at.

The radio program cites a recent CDC study that suggests that 1-in-15 children in the United States has some form of autism. Assuming this is true (and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, but I have to admit that I’m pretty poorly versed in autism research), then a significant number of our students in Jewish schools are autistic. (Or… maybe there are a lot of autistic kids out there who aren’t being served by Jewish educational institutions.)

I know there’s lots of work being done to improve the way we serve children with special needs and their families. There are organizations that do really good work on this front, and lots of synagogues are putting lots of resources into serving this particular part of our community. But the simple truth is that too many teachers (myself included) are poorly equipped to work with autistic students.

And though lots of training and staff-education is really important, maybe the easiest thing we can do is to learn to see the world through the eyes of people with autism. This week’s episode of Studio 360 helped me to start doing just that. I highly recommend it.

To listen to it yourself, visit http://www.studio360.org/episodes/2008/03/28, and click the “Download Show” link on the left-hand side.Joel Grishaver