This may sound like a silly question. I am the mother of two autistic children. I love them both dearly, but as any parent of children with special needs will tell you, raising them is challenging and can often be full of disappointment, hurt and frustration. I once heard somewhere that the Kaballah considers children who are autistic to be on a higher spiritual level, almost like angels. I found this idea to be extremely comforting and it gave me much strength to continue. I am trying to find out a little bit more about this concept -- is there any mention and/or allusion to autism anywhere in the Torah and/or other holy texts?
Every time I encounter a parent or guardian taking care of someone with special needs, I am in awe of their dedication and love. Reading your email with the preface "This may sound like a silly question…" is also inspiring. If your question is silly, then what am I to say of all my problems I imagine to be so important?
You asked for a source in the Kabbalah stating that the souls of these children are somehow special. In fact, there is just such a statement in the Zohar. But, as with most of the Zohar, it is not something immediately fathomable, so I hope you are up to a preamble and some explanation.
In the Torah reading of Emor (which happens to be the week in which you are asking this question) we find the laws of kohanim who have certain disabilities and are therefore disqualified from serving in the Holy Temple. The verse states "Any man among Aaron the Kohen's offspring who has a defect shall not draw near to offer up G‑d's fire offerings" (Leviticus 21:21).
How can it be that one who has done nothing wrong is barred from serving in the Holy Temple just because of a "blemish"? The G‑d who taught us to look beyond appearances and treat all with equal love, the same G‑d who created this very kohen with his disability, tells us "Nope, due to his blemish, he cannot serve Me in the Holy Temple"?!
So here is what is written in the holy Zohar:
Rabbi Shimon opened the discussion with the verse: "Only he shall not go in to the Veil, nor come near the to altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places: for I, G‑d, do sanctify them" (Vayikra 21:23). "He shall not go in to the Veil." Come and behold: at the time the river is flowing and comes out, and issues the souls, the feminine aspect above conceives. And they all abide in a room …
When the moon is rendered defective by the same aspect of the evil serpent, like all the souls that are issued, although they were all pure and sacred, are flawed. Since they emerged at a defective time, whichever place these souls reach [i.e. bodies] are crushed, and suffer pains and afflictions. The Holy One, blessed be He, cares for those who are broken, although their souls are sad instead of joyous.
The secret is that they remain as they were above. While the body is flawed, the soul inside remains the same as above. The one state resembles the other. Therefore, they are to be renewed like the moon, as it is written (Isaiah 66:23): "And it shall come to pass, that every new moon, and every Shabbat, all flesh shall come to bow down to the ground before Me, says G‑d." "All flesh" assuredly, for they are in need of renewal along with the moon.
…These righteous are the constant companions of the moon and have the identical defects.... And "G‑d is near to them who are of a broken heart"—that is, to those who suffer from the same defect as the moon, those who are always near her. "And He saves such as are of a contrite spirit," by giving them a portion of the life …because they who suffered with her shall also be renewed with her.
...Those defects from which the righteous suffer are called "sufferings of love," because they are caused by love and not by the man himself…Happy is their portion in this world and in the world to come...
As you can see, the words are quite esoteric. The thrust of them, however, is quite simple: There are souls born into the world that are whole on the inside, yet blemished on the outside. The reason is not for any punishment, but on the contrary, out of love. To understand further, you will need a little more explanation:
You need to know that the moon is a reference to G‑d's immanent presence in the world, otherwise known as the Shechinah. You also need to know that the Shechina, like the moon, wanes and waxes, as G‑d's presence sometimes shines brightly in the world, and at other times is shadowed and darkened. Some souls are conceived (not on earth, but above) at the waxing of the cycle. Those souls enter the world with a strong body and glide through life happily. Other souls are conceived with the darkening of the Shechina. Rabbi Shimon tells us that these souls share in the suffering of the Shechina—and that is why she is their constant companion. Eventually, this cycle of the Shechina will resolve in an everlasting fullness as G‑d's presence will shine in ultimate intensity in this world, and these souls "shall also be renewed with her."
So far, some answers. But many puzzles remain: Why must the Shechinah suffer? And what is the point behind these souls suffering along with her?
Concerning the suffering of the Shechina, Rabbi Yitzchaak Luria, the Ari, provided a deep and enlightening teaching. He explained that everything of our world is vitalized and sustained in existence by a divine spark. The higher the spark, he said, the lower it falls. The most intense divine light, therefore, is to be found in the darkest corners of our world. The Shechinah is both the light of G‑d's presence and the mother of all souls. The function of the human soul is to rescue these fallen sparks from their darkness so they may be reconnected to the Infinite Light. The Shechinah suffers as she descends into the darkness to perform that rescue. This, the Ari says, is "the secret of the exile of the Shechinah," as the Talmud says, "When the Jewish People go into exile, the Shechina goes with them."
The Tzemach Tzedek uses this teaching of the Ari to explain the above words of the Zohar. Generally, he writes, there are two ways to rescue the sparks from the forces of darkness. He equates the spiritual task of the unblemished souls to an army which engages another in battle. Eventually, the victors subdue their enemy but do not eradicate them completely.
Then, the Tzemach Tzedek continues, there are those born with a blemish—albeit external, since their soul remains whole. Their task is to totally eradicate evil so that it ceases to exist. Yet to do so, they must come into direct contact with that darkness. They are like those special forces sent out in camouflage in order to entice the enemy into an ambush. Obviously these soldiers do not have the outside trappings of a burly navy seal, after all, would any half intelligent fighter follow someone who appears as a threat to them into an ambush? But on the inside, internally, they are the elite troops, charged with a special mission.
Another way of saying this: In order to battle face to face with the darkness, the soul needs to have some of that darkness itself. Yet only externally—in order that this darkness itself can be redeemed.
How does this apply to the special needs child? Certainly all of us have seen clearly how these children—who were until recently neatly quarantined away from society in secluded institutions—have given us so much now that we allow them to participate in society. A school that helps mainstream such a child is doing a great service to all its students, teaching them compassion and understanding of others. A community that helps out finds itself bonded together in their act of caring. You may have heard of the Friendship Circles that have sprung up to assist in this mainstreaming. The directors tell me that the ones who benefit the most are the teens that volunteer—and end up learning so much from these special souls. As a parent, yes it is hard, but in the long run you certainly have the most to gain.
You ask if your children can be compared to angels, but in fact they hold a position much higher. The rest of us serve as the foot soldiers in G‑d's army, which itself is position greater than angels. But your children are of the elite troops, completing a special task in this world. Their challenges are certainly no fault of their own, and neither of yours. On the contrary, you have been given the great merit of bringing these two elite souls into the world, nurturing them and caring for them as they complete their lofty mission. It is by no means an easy job, but G‑d only entrusts these souls into the hands He deems most appropriate.
Here is a short thought along the same lines: Gifted and Challenged.
Talking about Kohanim, and being a Kohen myself, I want to bless you with much nachas from your children, and with the strength to meet the challenge and privilege that G-d has presented you with.
Here is the link to the Friendship Circle official site.