Monday, May 19, 2008

The Haredi World and Asperger Syndrome

Mishpacha, a Haredi magazine, published an article on Asperger Syndrome. It is sympathetic, if a bit patronizing, and it manages to convey the basics about Asperger Syndrome and how it is relevant to the Haredi community.

Curiously enough the article did not consider any of the specific difficulties that people with Asperger Syndrome face in trying to adapt to the Haredi world. I would see Asperger Syndrome as presenting a specific challenge for the Haredi community; in certain respects, the Haredi educational system and Haredi society are particularly ill-suited for handling children and adults with Asperger Syndrome. While those with Asperger Syndrome may, in theory at least, have a tremendous advantage over neuro-typicals when it comes to Talmud study, conforming to the dictates of the Haredi educational system and Haredi society is bound to prove problematic since they operate around very specific conventions and demand strict obedience their structure of authority.

Living in the Haredi world requires much more than ritual observance of Orthodox Jewish practice. For better or worse, to operate within the Haredi world one must be willing to conform oneself to a very specific lifestyle. The Haredi world, unlike the secular world, does not even have the pretense of valuing individualism. There is a very specific dress code. For boys, it is a hat, a black velvet yarmulke, a jacket, dress pants, and a button-down shirt. Girls have to wear skirts below the knee and their shirt sleeves must go past their elbows. Depending on which sect of Haredi Judaism you belong to the dress code is going to be even more specific. Being in the Haredi world requires that one have very specific interests. For example, a guy who is not particularly interested in the study of Talmud or who has other strong interests is going to clash with the system.

People with Asperger Syndrome have difficulty following even the conventions of a regular society, which is more flexible and has fewer penalties for failing to conform; how can one expect someone with Asperger Syndrome to handle a system with such specific requirements and where the penalty for failing to keep to these requirements is rejection not just by one's own peers, but by the authority system itself? In the secular world, someone with an Asperger type focus on history, music, science or mathematics is not going to be faced with the sort of existential crisis that being in the Haredi world would inevitably bring about. People with Asperger Syndrome, by and large, do not do well with authority figures. To ask someone living in their own heads and by their own rules to submit their will to an authority is to ask them to go against their very being. It is difficult enough when we are talking about a boss; how much more so when we are talking about a gadol, who, in theory, has a claim over every aspect of your life.

In dealing with members of their community with Asperger Syndrome, the Haredi world is up against a group whose very brains set them against the system. In a society that demands conformity to a very specific social pattern, Asperger Syndrome presents a thought structure that is profoundly individualistic and that sets forth its own lifestyle.


Elana Horwitz said...

Hi Benzion,

Elana Horwitz here - I wrote the Mishpacha article on Asperger's Syndrome.

I agree with the points you make about the difficulty a person with Asperger's might have in operating within the Haredi world. This is why I wrote the article - to suggest that the Haredi world attempt to appreciate and accomodate people with Asperger's and other differences.

My message is: The frum community should become informed about Asperger's, because it explains certain unusual behavior of many children and adults that appear basically typical. By understanding what makes people tick we can learn to accept and appreciate one another with our differences.

In other words, don't judge someone's behavior as rude or rebellious. He or she may just think differently from the way you do. Accept it, appreciate with it.

If you mention what you found patronizing in my article, I will try to address this issue.


Izgad said...

Thank you for your comment; it is a real honor.
Overall I thought it was a wonderful piece of journalism, mixing narrative with solid information. That being said I took umbrage at the fact that you referred to “Asperger’s sufferers.” I belong to the Tony Attwood school of Asperger Syndrome and view myself and other with Asperger Syndrome not as suffering or as being in any way defective, but simply as people with a different, but equally valid, way of dealing with the world. This may sound funny coming from an Orthodox Jew, but the group I believe the Asperger community should model themselves after is the Gay community. They used to be viewed as deviant by society and were listed as having a mental illness. But now society views them as simply another lifestyle and has bent over backward to accommodate them. If they can do it why not us; we are not devoted to breaking any major biblical taboos. :p
It is funny that you mentioned how people with Asperger Syndrome have problems reading fiction. Is there any study you can point me to for this? I read lots of fiction. I find that I relate far better to books than to people.

Elana Horwitz said...

"Asperger's sufferers" are not my words at all, and I object to that term for the same reasons you do. The article's editor must have substituted it for the term I just checked I used in the version I submitted, which is "people with Asperger's Syndrome".

I cannot recall offhand the particular piece of research I did that asserted that those with Asperger's have problems reading fiction, but I did read that. And in the Autism-Spectrum Quotient test (Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge's Autism Research Centre),question # 21 assumes that a person with Asperger's would say that he or she does not enjoy reading fiction. Go to

You may well enjoy reading fiction. Characteristics of people with Asperger's vary. I read that there are doctors who say, "If you've seen one Asperger''ve seen ONE Asperger's." Each person is a unique human being, and not a textbook case example.


Izgad said...

So you are not to blame for using the word "Sufferers." Could you please yell at your editor for me and throw in some nasty names to boot? :)
As for the issue of reading. I am actually involved in a book club for people with Asperger Syndrome here in Columbus.

James Pate said...

Hi Izgad,

Your points make sense, but I can also picture people with AS fitting into the Haredi culture (not that I know much about it, but I'm basing my comments on your description). It's like the military--there are a lot of Aspies who love the structure, the predictability, the being-told-exactly-how-to-act-and-what-to-say, that the military provides. Could the same apply to the Haredi culture?

Izgad said...

Your point is definately a valid one. The military in theory might work very well for someone with Asperger Syndrome, particularly once they get through basic training. The difference between the military and the Haredi world is that the military, while it has all sorts of rules, it offers people different things to do. One can be in logistics, an engineer, drive a tank or fly a plane etc.
Also while the military has its rules they are in hand books so you don't have to figure things out just by watching people.
What you have to understand about the Haredi world, the male part of it at least, is that one has to be into Talmud study either as a full time job or as a major hobbey. If, like me, you are not into studying Talmud you are quite literally writing yourself a pink ticket out of the Haredi world.

Anonymous said...

It is very likely that my father has aspergers, though he was never diagnosed as such. There are several people more qualified than I who have made such statements to me over the years that my father is most likely has aspergers. Frankly, it is the one thing that makes total sense when talking about my father.

My father was in the military for 30 years and he was realitively happy, and the military was more than happy to let him do "his thing". My father was an engineer. He tinkered with machinary, particularly vehicles. The military structure provided a way for him to be acceptable to the world in general. His military service is what defines him to the general populous and in a sense gives a cover to his quirks.

When my father retired, everything fell apart. He didn't know and couldn't understand how the world outside the military worked. The military had given him a structure to live by and without he could not manage. My father became increasingly more distant over the years. He taught himself how to manipulate all sorts of software programs to building computers from a pile of parts, and being able to find lost files or recover data lost by viruses in a time when the field was just breaking out into something major. He never took a course in any of it. He learned it all from books and dissecting the programs. Soon, my father was lost to a computer world that he had nothing to do with his children or his wife. It was what he was comfortable with and made sense to him. He became a workaholic and his second marriage suffered and broke. Whenever I see my father, he is tinkering away at some computer game or program or he is sleeping. He leaves the computer long enough to say hello to me and good bye.

So, in one sense the military I believe the military is excellent for aspies, but I also think there needs to be a balance struck for them when they leave the military, especially if they are career military.

Though many religions provide a great deal of structure like military life does, the boundaries in which certain religious groups functions are more finite in what is acceptable. Though my father parents died before I was born, I am pretty sure they were fairly good catholics. They tried to send my father to catholic school, which is rather strict on many points. Well, my father did not get along very well in that structured environment. There is a story my father tells about his time spent in catholic school. He lasted no more than three days. My father was adverse to following any sort of religious behavior. The nun hit him with a ruler as punishment, my father threw his desk, a fight ensued with "the penguins", he was kicked out. My father has never spoke a word on religion concerning him beyond this. My father has for as long as I can remember called every nun a penguin.

Izgad is correct. The haredi world is much different than the military. I doubt even the strictures of Catholism come close, because a person can still pursue secular interests within the boundaries of Catholism. Inside, the Catholic school system of my father's time there was a great deal of scholastic censorship, which might have prove difficult an aspie. I don't know if the coursework has changed in the Catholic world, I never had the misfortune of going to a private catholic school. Nor do I know what the catholic coursework was then.

James, I don't know if this is a proper anology, but, one could view the entire Haredi world as an aspie fixated on torah and talmud study. That is their main, outstanding focus; beyond that, the world, people and such really don't matter. The only thing that makes true sense to them is how they see their world.

Sorry, if I offended anyone.

Elana Horwitz said...

Elana Horwitz here again.

A similar version of my original Mishpacha article, Understanding Asperger's Syndrome, can be read by going to this Spirit Magazine link:

Anonymous said...

Can you recommend any leading Rabbis with expertise in psychology and Aspergers in adults?

If not, then psychologists in Los Angeles?

Izgad said...

Elana Horwitz might be able to help you on this. She wrote the article. Rabbi Abraham Twerski is the expert on Judaism and psychology, but to the best of my knowledge he has not done anything with Aspergers.
One of the people I work with here in Columbus, Jeff Siegel, is an Orthodox Jew.

Anonymous said...

Is there anything is print such as a journal article detailing if being raised as a strict religious orthodox jew when the child has asperger's is either of benifit or detriment to a child? The therapy prescribed to my child such as enroll in a sports team can't be done and still follow Saturday no driving laws. Is there an article or study showing the isolation that to an extent ultra orthodox religious jews have from regular American society make a child's aspergers worse or there is no difference in culture/religion on the long term adult outcome of how a child will respond?

Izgad said...

To the best of my knowledge there has not been much written on Orthodox Aspergers. It could make an interesting study, because the system could swing in so many different ways for an Asperger. An Asperger who likes Gemara could benefit greatly from Orthodoxy. Otherwise things could go very badly.

Gorazd said...

Rav Shach z"l had Asperger's syndrome.