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The Son Who Cannot Ask

The Son Who Cannot Ask

Praying for My Autistic Son's Redemption


Like the Jews in Egypt, our son is enslaved.

He looks okay, for the most part. Luminous blue eyes with curtain-like lashes and sweet lips set against perfectly rounded cheeks. A charming build, a strong gait, sturdy three-year-old legs.

But he is not okay, and we, his parents, know and live with this every day. He is not okay, because he is enslaved. Like his ancestors, he is in a prison; his is a prison of the mind, perhaps the heart.

Mendel has autism. At three, his words come stilted and only one at a time, spoken with difficulty only when he really, truly wants something enough to say it. Sometimes, he stands at the periphery and, just for a moment, watches cousins or peers at play. He laughs to himself and seems to want to join, then darts off in the other direction because he can't. You can sometimes catch him eyeing his older sister, whose name he will not say, with something akin to interest. But she will take his hand and try to dance, and he will wrestle free and revert to a solitary puzzle.

At three, his words come stilted and only one at a time, spoken with difficultyBut like the Jews in Egypt, we pray for redemption. It is the light at the end of our darkness; the faint dream that pulls us together when we begin to fray. It is possible, and besides, we believe in miracles. The sea can split; our son can talk. His personal exile is deep and real, but there is, always, the possibility of freedom.

An image comes to my mind: Mendel, at two, with a bucket of wooden blocks. Listlessly, he piles them up until the tower falls. He is not perturbed when his sister knocks it over; there is no emotion as, silently, he begins to build again. An evaluator from the State visits and points this out. "He plays with them too often. He doesn't seem to care." I could not see it then, but I do now: Mendel is enslaved, locked in a routine of his own creation, but one that seems to matter little in any sort of real way. And I think of the Jews in Egypt, enslaved in a routine of worthless, meaningless labor, where the work of their hands would crumble, and the bitterness of their troubles made them hard so as not to even care or hear the call of redemption.

Pesach, the Hebrew word for Passover, I recall reading somewhere, can be read as two distinct Hebrew words: Peh (mouth) sach (speaks), intimating a redemption on some verbal level. And indeed, commentaries note a juxtaposition in the text chronicling the gradual descent into slavery. "And it came to pass in those many days, the king of Egypt died and the Children of Israel sighed from the bondage and they cried…" They cried then, say the commentators, in the aftermath of Pharaoh's death, in a period of national mourning, because to cry for their plight at any other time was forbidden by their captors, and so they disguised their pain as patriotism and called out to G‑d.

This was the beginning of their exile, an exile so deep it limited even the words they could say, and, as the generations wore on, entrenched until it had enslaved their very souls: the thoughts they could think; the things they could feel.

And I wonder: How to pull one out of such slavery? An entire people, generations of children lost to the memory of freedom—how to move them from suffocating silence to a proud nation, G‑d's chosen? I look at my son and wonder the same thing.

In Egypt, G‑d sent Moses. Moses, man of G‑d, who humbly bridged the gap between heaven and earth and whose personal struggles and journeys reflected the transformation of his people.

His personal exile is deep and real, but there is, always, the possibility of freedomMoses was a spiritual enigma: a man of Atzilut, says the Kabbalah, referring to the highest of four worlds of spiritual consciousness. Atzilut, from the word etzel, near, describes a world near to G‑d, and distant, in so many ways, from the day-to-day functioning most of us experience. For most of us, living in the world of action, Asiyah, life is a pretty simple eco-system of mind and matter. Our thoughts are grounded; they translate easily into the words and actions that fill our days. We observe the behaviors of our world and act according to its norms. Moses lived in Atzilut, in a world of the mind, nearer to G‑d than to the norms of human life. For this reason, Moses spoke with a stutter. Was he imperfect? Was he shy? On the contrary—his thoughts were of a higher dimension; his reality had little to do with life in this world. He was a man of G‑d speaking to mere men, and the line of communication across such distance inevitably blurs.

A video clip of the Rebbe, stored in my mind: An anguished man leans in to ask the Rebbe's blessing for his son, who is autistic. The Rebbe offers his blessing, and then adds, surely the fact that an autistic child is disconnected from other people shows that he has an even closer connection to G‑d, and spirituality. And I think about our son: he of the intense gaze, the joy he radiates on the holiday of Simchat Torah, the way he probes a Talmud book larger than him and dances to a soulful Chassidic melody. He is a lofty, beautiful soul but it is not enough for me. He is enslaved.

And so I follow the story of our collective redemption, as our ancestors, led by Moses, travel from darkness and boundaries and limitations to freedom. There's no instant cure for a slavery this deep; it's a process.

I think of the initial breakthrough, as the Jewish people left Egypt and crossed through a sea that miraculously, majestically, parted for them and revealed a dry path to go forward. That undersea world – always there but never seen or really understood – opened up in a stunning split of the water covering it, revealing incredible treasures and an entire world beneath the surface. And beyond a physical display, a spiritual revelation occurred then—the knowledge of a G‑dly life-force was so clear to see that even a simple maiden, says the Midrash, pointed at G‑d's presence on the banks of the Sea of Reeds and said, "This is my G‑d."

I can picture the point—it is an expression of that which is clear to the mind, and a still elusive pursuit for my son. He is slowly, painstakingly, learning to point naturally and purposefully, and I wait for the day that he will demonstrate clear understanding with the deliberate direction of a finger. In the trajectory of the redemption, it is the point that seems to pierce through the layers of bondage. We can see G‑dliness; it is so real, we can point to it.

But redemption is a process, I remind myself and require no further proof for this than the Jewish people, mere days after the dramatic events at sea, complaining to return to Egypt. They are still enslaved; their souls still gripped by a deep power. It's a one step forward, two-steps back proposition that is all too familiar.

We know all about the process. Day in, day out, our son sits in a little classroom at home while other children dance and paint in school. He is learning: to imitate, to repeat, to follow instructions and make neuro-connections that he will perhaps one day make on his own. Each step is carefully noted; what he learns, he must then work to maintain. It is hard, hard work but he is enslaved and we have no choice. We wait for his redemption. I clean the house for Passover, pull out the Haggadahs, vacuum the couch and dream of his redemption. He is here; he is hidden; he is stuck. We will work hard, but only you, G‑d, can pull him out.

In the trajectory of the redemption, it is the point that seems to pierce through the layers of bondageI imagine Jethro, venerable father-in-law of Moses, traveling to Sinai on hearing of the giving of the Torah, that grand climax of the exodus from Egypt. What exactly did he hear? asks the Midrash. The answer resonates with me and fills my heart with hope. He heard that Moses had been cured of his stutter, and being a man of deep understanding, Jethro understood this event for what it was: a connection, a link, created between an Atzilut consciousness and Asiyah living. Between the world of the mind and the world of action. A great spirituality finding expression in the functions of life every day. It was redemption, he understood, not just for Moses, but for the hidden spirituality of the Children of Israel, for the great G‑dly spirit that lay enslaved, trapped in an exile that did not allow it expression, nor allow it a voice.

And I think, finally, of the Seder, where we celebrate this redemption by speaking of our freedom, of the great and glorious process that wrought a nation of kings from an enslaved and broken people. Our son will be at the Seder, of course. Of the four sons, this year, he will be the one who knows not how to ask the questions. It is for him that the Haggadah says, "Aht ptach lo"—you shall open his mind and explain to him the depth of the exile from which we were redeemed. It was an exile where the soul and mind were enslaved and had no voice— an exile that needs no explanation for us. Our son lives in exile every day, and we watch, and work, and pray.

This year, we are enslaved. But next year, perhaps next year, we shall be free.

By Anonymous
The author is a mother of three and a Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchah (emissary) living in the United States.
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Jerry NYC December 3, 2017

I just finished reading a passage in the Zohar - "A sigh, a cry, and a wail", from there I was reading a passage in the Tanya, where the Shechinah speaks from the throat of Moses, which led me to look up Arizal and brought me to your article. Everything you wrote was what I was just reading.
This is my story and I hope it helps. My younger daughter seemed to be developing fine, it wasn't until she was a year and a half or two that she lost her ability to speak, make eye contact, recognize people. Many other symptoms of autism. One possibility was a severe reaction to an immunization shot, the other was water intrusion that led to elevated mold spores in our apartment. We had the apartment tested and moved out. We contacted Early Intervention and they put her on the Autism spectrum. My wife and I tried everything. Conventional medicine didn't have the answer. We went the natural holistic route. A strict diet gluten free, cassein free, supplements, etc. Now she's 7 and no symptoms.
Sorry, I had to cut things short. There is much more to it. It was not just relying on physicians, but most of all Hashem. We can learn this from King Hezekiah and King Asa. One did, one did not.
Also keep in mind what is written in Ezekiel 47:12 "and their leaves for healing".
My prayers for all of you and your children. In many ways the hardest things in life are actually blessings. Please feel free to contact me or if the situation need be Hashem will put us together. Just as he did now. It's not hard to find me. I'm the bagpipes playing niggunim. Reply

Anonymous June 15, 2016

It is sad to read this woman saying her child is enslaved. My grandson developed normally and spoke until age 2 or so when his speech disappeared along with his eye contact, social and cognitive abilities. My daughter was told he had autism. She was also told by the first doctor to officially diagnose him that these abilities were still there but to date we don't have a good way to get to them. My grandson is now 12. In the intervening years he was diagnosed as profoundly retarded, adhd, etc. He was worked relentlessly for 40 hours a week in ABA therapy for years, pecs, special diets, etc.. At age 9 he began a new method of learning and BH now reads, does math and spells age appropriately although he remains autistic and needs help in daily living skills. I beg this mother to be her son's Moses and lead him out of his enslavement. Keep searching, watch the movie A Mother's Coirage, try what she did ( RPM) and maybe your son too will have the freedom you want for him. Reply

Raizy M NY November 26, 2015

From the author To all the people who shared wishes, advice and feedback: thank you. If you have the comment notification feature on, then you will receive this message. Thank you for the wonderful wishes and care. Our son is now 10. He has developed in many ways, we are so proud of him, but I do see him still as somewhat trapped/enslaved by his inability to speak. We love him and understand him and are very close to him. We have done many things to teach him. We are now beginning to see success as he is learning to type his thoughts. Hugs and best wishes to parents who are struggling to help their child learn and communicate. It's a long road. Mendel has enriched our life, brought us closer and taught us so much and yet it has been a huge struggle for him, one I wish he didn't have. Our children are treasures who need us to help them shine. Reply

kela highland August 16, 2015

Yea my son is 23 and has never spoke a day in his life. Nor is he pottytrainned. He is like a big baby. He looks like he is a teenager and doesn't understand danger. He is the oldest of my four boys, but his mind is wierd like a baby. My other sons are so much support. Things get hectic sometimes, but god works it out. We all have to live our lives around my autistic son. We all love him so much as well as each other. God is good all the time. Reply

K AR March 30, 2015

To the mother of the boy who cannot ask I know your pain and I pray for the same. My 4 year old son has autism as well and while he has finally begun to speak he is still enslaved in many ways as well. He doesn't understand how to or isn't able to join and share in social activities with peers. He collects and obsesses over vacuum cleaners. Other interests are only fleeting. We embrace him, encourage him and love him just as he is but I also mourn for the life I had imagined for him before he was born but it was not up to me to decide his purpose. I got chills when I read the excerpt from your post :
But he is not okay, and we, his parents, know and live with this every day. He is not okay, because he is enslaved. Like his ancestors, he is in a prison; his is a prison of the mind, perhaps the heart.
Just moments before I had read the origin of the meaning of my son's name...Hudson... Son of Hugh which means of the heart or mind...
Although his autism exiles him socially I have yet to experience more pure innocence than he Reply

Anonymous New York September 12, 2014

The question is: WHAT was flooding hormone levels to block the neurological processes??? My experience with the Spectrum blocks I can say it was because of the immunization hits I received as a child to travel internationally. Coming from the training of a naturalist parent I remember refusing synthetics from the very beginning. If I had a headache I drank more water or a cup of camomile. The healing came when I paid attention to my endocrine glandular health; my body's internal filtering systems. I came out of that expression block through (nutrition). *Inflamation was the greatest injury that had to be brought under control. Exercise was another very important combination that depended on ACTUAL water intake. Coffee, tea, nor punch counted for water. This meant I had to water all of the juices from the sugars, detox regularly, watch better PORTIONS, and choices.
When we are born our bodies are equipt with some of the choices of our parents. In my case: a backed up lymphatic system blocked internal illimination processes which raised toxicity levels, and contraceptives. Reply

Ariella Texas May 27, 2014

It is not Him who is enslaved I too have a child with Autism, and two with ADHD!! :) He was VERY severe and completely non-functional regressive type. At 15 years now, he is high functioning. What I am going to say may make you step back and think :)

It is not your son who is enslaved, or you. It is the rest of the world. The love, compassion, dedication, WORK, and joy that you can share with your son, will raise you and your soul higher, and your family, and your community, higher.

Embrace and overcome WITH your child, and do not worry about the labels others box him into :) He will come out of that shell if he is meant to. If not, there are ways to communicate. PECS, compputers, alpha smart tablets, android and ipads, cards, fluffy balls, legos, you name it. Be very creative and multi dimensional. Our kids respond to 3d!

I know how hard it is, and the challenges you face.

Repeat after me. "My son is not enslaved, the rest of the world is" :) Keep saying it, and eventually, you too will see what I did Reply

Anonymous NY May 26, 2014

My son is in the same situation. I feel that there is a veil between him and us. It's very tough. He is alone in this world, we cannot comfort him. We can only hope. Reply

Anonymous April 3, 2014

The son who cannot ask
The author's dear son sounds very similar to our son .
I was touched by the prayers of redemption expressed in this essay and see Passover in a different way than I used to now.
Thank you Reply

Lisalt23 Carmel June 14, 2012

Work and help him Hi. I have a son who has autism as well. Just continue working out and helping him. Do not let his mind go to waste. Needs change all the time. He is still young and can still do wonder. Reply

kim southern, california April 19, 2010

the mercury issue in the US, all new shots have to be made without thimerosol, the methylmercury. however, the measles-mumps-rubella triple vaccine still has it, and, the measles vaccine is live so it has more potential to harm. ask outright if the shots being given have mercury--and ask to see the vial before they draw the shot. it has to have a warning on the bottle if it has mercury. if you have a lot of questions and doubts, ask for mitochodrial dna testing--it will reveal more of the possible risk of autism whether or not shots are given, but if they show a risk, you can simply wait. if your child is not in public day care, or out in the community a lot in his or her first six months, you probably don't need every single shot out there. the hepatitis A shot given to infants is to protect hospitals who may have workers not washing their hands, as well as the child. the respiratory virus shot and the DPT combo can be spread out. Reply

Samuel Cookson Preston, UK April 18, 2010

No link between autism and mercury Sue -

With all due respect - and appreciation of the fact that you clearly have the best interests of others at heart with your comment - there is no link between autistic spectrum disorders and mercury.

Shalom. Reply

sue Kanata, ON March 26, 2010

Please remember, when you have a brand new baby, to ask for "immune challenged" immune shots for your infant. If you get shots reserved with thimerosil (which is an oxide of mercury) your child risks development of autism, blindness, diabetes, skin allergies that burn and asthma.
You can read about all of the tests done by concerned MDs over mandatory immunization on Red Flag (a Doctors site)
All you have to do is ask for serum for immune challenged and to pay a bit extra for fresh serum, not preserved. You will protect your tiny one for life. (Oh, quitcha whoining-save for it bonzo)
Mercury in cheap canned fish is the worst source of autism (ADD) in children, (read Pharmacists' Advisory Canada) but these mandatory shots are a deep threat, too.
At least, go those steps to eliminate causes fo autism before they happen, if at all poss.

Anonymous NY, NY via March 25, 2010

Beautiful letter. Please consider the DIR/floortime model or Sunrise, which emphasize joyful interaction even for non-verbal children. May G-d grant you peace of mind this year! Reply

Dan Waldron Rockford, Illinois,Winnebago March 25, 2010

Autism in the family. My wife's cousin,whom she is close to by the way,has 3 sons. The eldest has Autism(aspergers) while he was growing up, was placed in the regular school system, grew up basically in normal setting.Watched his two younger siblings grew with him.Again on the surface what could be the problem?

Yet the school experience was very hard on him,he would cry a lot and recede away from the other children.The biggest thing that bothers us all in seeing Josh,and knowing that so many children are plagued with the issue of autism,is where is it coming from,what is causing such a high rise in society of cases?

The best news now is that Josh is in a University,is a math savant,doing well.Saw him recently at a funeral,he acts bizarre at times,but he played the music for the funeral on a key board,and did well. What a great testimony of dedicated parents who met the needs of their son with autism,and also raised the two other boys with good values and so on. Reply

annette March 25, 2010

autism a lovely writing..but,you have got to be equate your son with egypt.and being in a prison...let me tell you my son is now 45yrs...and i have never expressed his life..yes he has you have about your child...i feel sorry for need the for his mind he has one...and also a heart....get help.... Reply

kim san diego, ca March 24, 2010

Both sides I understand Jacoby's response--to protest a statement of a child referred to as "enslaved" by their autism, and asking that one mourn privately; and I understand completely the author's vision as seeing it as enslavement. I have two autistic children, and at times the repetitive actions they take are calming and soothing to them. At others, it is very obvious they are indeed enslaved by the overwhelming need to carry out an action that is exhausting to them. I do not question that G-d has a plan for them, made them wonderously and specially for their lives. I question what G-d was thinking to give them to me, so imperfect and so lacking in ability to give back. Let the child see the mourning, as well as see the joy he brings. It is a full picture and he should not be denied any portion of it. Blessings to you all. Reply

Anonymous Sacramento, California March 24, 2010

Mendel Thank you for being so brave. If Mendel could talk, he would tell you how much he loves you. My oldest son had virtually the same kind of responses as Mendel at the same age. It took a village to raise him, and, thank G-d, he was able to overcome most of the challenges that kept him "trapped". You are not enslaved; neither is he. Give thanks that his body is healthy, that he can walk, see, talk. He will grow out of a lot of the things you are seeing-I watched miracles unfold in front of me daily, and it strengthened my faith in G-d's power and mercy. Mendel is a gift-one sent to make you grow with him. Reply

sue Kanata, ON March 23, 2010

beautiful and enriching meditation It's a profound path, and your little one has his own path moments of freedom and insight- let's face it, only the anima or animus side could be "enslaved", but then the wealth of information imparts some education, some aspect of what is earth or soul - to the cells and consciousness of his whole organism.

So, he cannot ever be totally enslaved- if he has his strong legs and arms, eyes and taste buds- there are wonders and realized moments for your sweetheart.

I live with a gifted man who grew up with ADD- yes, it's autism, but what a delight he is- no, he isn't retarded- he has a super sense of humour and wondrous talents, which he uses very consciously.

SLowly but surely what occurred to your sons' right brain will have a chance at clarifying- some cells are actually mobile, and they will communicate, as long as he is active and stimulated- just don't give up, or focus his spiritual being into desperate antiquity, either! Reply

Laurie (Luzy Falluzy on Facebook) Morgen Derby, England March 22, 2010

Celebrate Mendel's autism! Why are so many comments anonymous? Let us all see who you are. This article has meant so much to me to read. I have never read every single comment to a posting before but Mendel's story has captured the heart of the foreigner, alien and autist, which is what and who I am.

To the author I say, 'Make yourself known.'

To Jacoby, my love goes out to you. I am autistic and a Jew by choice.

To everyone, there is so much to say.

I love you all. Reply

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