Words cannot describe how it feels to prep an autistic boy for his bar-mitzvah and then watch him journey into his own spiritual manhood with grace, dignity, and pure joy. This is a kid that everyone has given up on because he showed no academic potential until 18 months ago when I entered into his life.
Today, he is a transformed human being. With perfect pitch and ten years of piano lessons, memorizing his aliyah (torah portion chant) was ridiculously easy for him. The bar-mitzvah was not the culmination of our work together, but rather the unlocking of the first 1% of his potential for the rest of his life. My speech is in the last two minutes of the video below.
Autistic kids preparing for their Bar-Mitzvah are at a distinct advantage. Their musical ear will make memorizing their Torah portion a breeze. Their love for languages will guarantee that the drash
will be read with expression and drama. Lastly, their extensive support team from childhood will be rooting for them, making their big day a very important rite of passage and into adulthood.
When purchasing a tallit, it is important that the B’nei Mitzvah’s sensory preferences are a
lready known. Does he prefer soft velvety fabrics or is he aversive to them? Does he prefer woven linens to chenille and velvet? He should be given as much time as he needs to test by wearing the actual styles and make sure he can tolerat
e the textures on his neck. After all, he will be wearing it for two hours on the big day, as well as for the rest of his life during prayers. Perhaps he prefers that you wash and dry it many times so it isn’t very crispy on the big day. Ask, and discuss.
Donning the tallit independently and with dignity is very important. Nobody wants to stand up there looking like a confident young man with a beautiful suit and tie, dressed to the nines, and suddenly have mama adjust the tallit on for him. Imagine the public embarrassment anyone would feel—“Ma, stop!”
Other than the grueling and frustrating rote memorization of gross and fine motor skill tasks, motor planning disorders (such as dyspraxia) require a neurological alternate route for successful execution of the task at hand. The following is a strategy that worked for my student:
Grandpa (or whoever) holds the tallit, with the words facing you, so you can read them.
Begin reading the blessing. You’ve got this. You’ve been practicing for so long!
Right Hand reaches for the word “Batzitzit”
Left Hand reaches for the word “Baruch”
With your “Batzitzit” hand (Right Hand), put “Batzitizit” over your head.
Gloat as it falls into place.
Wiggle the tallit to make sure it doesn’t hang like a toilet paper tail. Don’t look at it. Try to feel it.
IMPORTANT: Do not practice in front of a mirror. It confuses the motor system that tries to imitate a reversed image. Rather, practice by reading from this chart. If the tallit does not have words on it, imagine where the words would be and reach for it when grabbing the corners. If it is your family custom to kiss the tallit, ask your family where and when to do so and revise your chart accordingly.