Kvell & Tell: Doctors Said My Son with Autism Wouldn't Talk...
"Doctors Said My Son with Autism Wouldn't Talk, But He Just Led His Own Bar Mitzvah Service"
By Debby Gans
Published on Kveller.com
The doctor’s expression told me everything I needed to know about my 3-year-old son. Her words confirmed that he would never speak, learn, or socialize due to Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“Just take him home and love him,” she said. Imagine being the mom in that moment.
Ten years later, that mom and that child stood together on the bimah overlooking an audience of 250 family members and friends. This was a day like no other and one that we only dreamed could be possible. It was Benji’s bar mitzvah.
That doctor’s lack of compassion drove me to do the complete opposite. I researched every potential treatment—medical or alternative—that could help Benji navigate more comfortably through the world. In my desperation to find what would help him, we traveled to the ends of the earth to meet with different practitioners. I wanted to try anything and everything—it all gave me hope. My husband, a medical doctor, wanted to pause and evaluate. He wanted studies, clinical trials, and evidence to the efficacy of all possible therapies. We met in the middle, and our mantra became if it wasn’t going to harm him, we would give it a try.
The first real hope was meeting with a practitioner who was on the Autism spectrum herself. She gave us practical solutions to begin helping Benji. Prior to working with her, Benji spoke only in limited canned phrases. After working with her once and doing minimal follow up at home, Benji asked a real question. “Where Daddy? He at work?” This was a major breakthrough! She was the first specialist that proved “taking him home and loving him” was not the fate that Benji was determined to have.
Many miles, loads of money, and tons of time were all spent on finding treatments. Some helped a little and a few were life changing. Fast forward eight years and Benji is thriving in a mainstream school, academically, socially, and spiritually, and is considered a gem in this community. He has many fans from all over the world.
When thinking about how we should plan for Benji’s bar mitzvah celebration, I had a conversation with him on how I saw the day. I made the suggestion of a low-key bowling party, and his response was, “I have climbed some seriously big mountains, don’t you think I deserve a traditional bar mitzvah?” So, we planned a traditional bar mitzvah, and nearly every single person who was invited came from near and far to share in the celebration.
Unlike many other milestones in Benji’s childhood, the preparations for this event went smoothly. Benji loves Hebrew and has a true affinity for Judaism. Although it was very challenging for him to learn English, learning Hebrew was easy for Benji. The biggest challenge for him (as well as for me) was understanding and interpreting his Torah portion.
In front of a packed sanctuary, Benji didn’t just shine, he captivated a room full of his family, friends, and key players in his journey with Autism. Saying the day was meaningful is an understatement—it was magical. From the moment he stepped on the bimah, he led the service as if he had been training to be a rabbi for his entire life. He loved every moment as he chanted prayers, sang Hallelujah in Hebrew, and gave a heartfelt and relevant speech about letting go of anger. It moved a room of 250 people to a standing ovation. This was a first for our rabbi of 20 years. Every person in the audience was overwhelmed by the joy that Benji exuded. It was a day beyond anything I ever imagined possible.
This is not your typical proud mom bragging about their child; this is about being an advocate so that my child could experience the world in the same manner in which his peers do. Benji’s bar mitzvah was a defining moment in our family’s lives.
Back when he was 3, I didn’t know whether Benji would ever speak. At 13, he lead an entire service alone in front of 250 people.
So maybe if you are told that your child will never be able to speak, learn, or socialize, think of Benji and have hope. Against some pretty steep odds, he stood on the bimah and said to me and my husband, “Thank you for always being by my side and guiding me through life. I could not ask for better parents. You are the few parents that did not accept what experts said, refused to give up, and always tried extremely hard to help me be the best Benji I can be.” I felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest with pride.
In the beginning, I expected to be the teacher—after all, that’s what I did before Benji was born. Little did I know that he would teach me far more than I could ever teach him. Raising Benji has taught me to be less afraid of the world, to always believe even if I have to alter my perspective, and how to be a better person.
Most importantly, our quest to help Benji taught me to never lose hope and to see that sometimes, miracles really are possible.
See the story published on Kveller.