Contact Us

Raising a Special Child

Raising a Special Child


Hope, an Essential Ingredient

When my daughter was born, I experienced total bliss, a mixture of blessedness, joy and contentment. Birthing a girl was the answer to my prayers, since I was able to give her the names of my mother and mother-in-law, both recently deceased. We named her Zlata Esther—Zlata after my mother, and Esther after my mother-in-law—and we called her Zlatie.

Her first year of life was filled with happiness, as I watched her attain all the milestones. Though Zlatie was slightly delayed with crawling and walking, my competent pediatrician was not at all concerned. “She is a perfectly healthy baby. All her needs are met immediately, so there is little need for her to explore her surroundings. Enjoy your happy child. She is any parent’s dream,” he reassured me.

He was right. Zlatie was undemanding; she rarely cried, and never asked to be picked up. She would follow me with her eyes, but was content to remain in her crib or playpen.

By the time Zlatie reached eighteen months, however, I was becoming alarmed by her complacency. I expressed my concern to the doctor during each monthly visit, and he finally reluctantly agreed to refer her for a neurological exam.

The neurological exam at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital proved inconclusive, but a prominent psychiatrist gave a diagnosis: autism.

In 1964 this condition was virtually unknown, still in its infancy. I was overwhelmed, and unsure of how I would cope. An audience, yechidus, with the Rebbe was what I needed.

I was accompanied by Zlatie, who looked adorable with her long curly brown hair framing her small face. She was dressed in her blue and white embroidered pinafore, with a big brown bow in the back, and her shiny black patent leather shoes.

Zlatie held my hand as we walked into the Rebbe’s room. The Rebbe observed us closely and motioned us to sit. He watched Zlatie intently as she gingerly climbed into the chair. Then he removed a paper and pencil from his desk drawer and placed the items before Zlatie. She immediately took the pencil, held it properly within her small hand and began to scribble on the paper.

The Rebbe’s face was aglow. “This is wonderful,” he said in Yiddish. “Her reactions are perfectly normal. I don’t understand why you feel so dejected.”

His words were so comforting.

At the completion of the audience, the Rebbe reached once again into his desk drawer and took out a shiny silver dollar. Zlatie immediately stretched out her little hand and took the dollar. The Rebbe smiled happily, and recommended an evaluation with a well-known doctor.

The Rebbe instilled me with hope, an essential ingredient for the parent of a child with special needs. He inspired me to help Zlatie develop to her fullest potential. He gave me strength and courage to persevere. She reached many milestones—not always at the recommended times, but that was not important. She ate independently and used cutlery appropriately by age three. By age four and a half she was able to dress herself, adeptly fastening zippers, buttons and belts, and tying shoelaces. “Double knot,” she would proudly exclaim about her mastering the skill.

The Rebbe advised me to proceed as if Zlatie were an ordinary child. This would be a major component of her success. I understood from what the Rebbe was saying that action was the key, an optimistic attitude was essential, and endless worry would be detrimental.

Finding Balance

Shortly thereafter we visited a certain psychiatrist, renowned for his highly acclaimed book on exceptional children. He stared at me condescendingly. With great authority he stated, “This child will never be able to live an independent life. Do yourself a favor and find a residence for her. Forget she was ever born.”

His callous pronouncement horrified me. My daughter, my innocent child, had never asked to be born. G‑d had given her to me, and she was my responsibility. Steely-eyed, I glared at him, pulled Zlatie off the chair and stomped out. Only later did I allow the tears to flow.

Brokenhearted, devastated, I came to the Rebbe once again. After sleepless nights of tossing and turning, I entered his study. There was so much I wanted to say, so many questions to ask. The Rebbe looked at me with great kindness and compassion. His eyes were filled with deep understanding. I was unable to control my tears; they flowed freely as deep sobs broke the silence. I clenched my fists, silently berating myself for wasting precious time with my emotional outburst.

Finally, with great difficulty, I regained control and the audience began. I poured out my heart to the Rebbe, updating him fully on Zlatie’s condition. The Rebbe listened intently, nodding his head, immersed in my words. Then the Rebbe asked, “Tell me about your other children. How are they doing in school? Do they have friends?”

This was the Rebbe. He reminded me, in his unassuming way, that G‑d had blessed me with four other children, and that I needed to be a mother to all of them. With an uplifted heart I left his room, armed with a new realization of the importance of viewing the whole picture, of finding balance.

Excerpted from Dignified Differences: A Special Soul

Chana Sharfstein, an expert on Scandinavian Jewish history, is a noted author, educator and tour guide. Raised and educated in Stockholm, Sweden, Chana is a retired member of the New York City school system, and a docent at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and the Center of Jewish History.
Dignified Differences: A Special Soul describes the struggles and triumphs of families with children with special needs. The beautifully designed volume is a treasure of encouragement, inspiration and enlightenment for all those who have ever come in contact with individuals with special needs. The book includes the teachings and words of inspiration of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1000 characters remaining
M L K Brockton Ma May 2, 2016

A special daughter My daughter has a illness that was unknown . We finally found a doctor who said the illness was not able to be cured . Did not now really know to treat this illness . Asked questions how we detected something was wrong with her . We just felt it . My daughter has a rare illness but a disastrous one. She can do many dangerous things . Found a doctor that with the right medication was able to help to a great degree she still has the illness it never be cured . Reply

Ben July 29, 2015

heartwarming this story is very touching. I look forward to reading the rest of the book. Reply

Sam July 29, 2015

Dignified Differences I purchased the book, that includes this excellent chapter from Mrs. Sharfstein.
However, the book is a breadth of fresh air. it teaches tolerance, kindness and how we could be more accepting of people with special needs. It is highly recommended. Reply

Anonymous July 28, 2015

Raising a special child
I too was horrified and angry when professionals and friends told me to institutionalize and forget my child.
I do not regret ignoring the advice to give up on my child and to send him away.
Together we achieved many things that people said not to bother with because my son is a "write-off ". He shaped me just as much as I helped him to learn.
My son's beautiful smile was all worth it.

In the midst of this has been like the "compassionate and understanding smile of the Rebbe". Reply

yochanan July 27, 2015

well what can i say, i too have autism and grew up in a time when we were just declared useless and this was in England, they are actually very primitive in child rearing.

My dad was very strict and beat me regularly as did the school teachers as well for not learning. Well i achieved nothing academilcally. But i went for a diagnosis at the age of 45 and was upset that it wasn'tt realised sooner but let me tell you all you parents that i now am pleased because i grew up able to learn about life and this is better than any academic learning, believe me.

people worry about autistic children but we do have a sense of being with G-d and a sense of being. We hurt easily but forgive as well without realising it as it seems natural.

the sage in the article was correct and it was good to read as i had no person who showed me any compassion with my difficulties. i learnt to understand those who did not understand me.

Shalom Aleichem Reply