Monday, September 2, 2013

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Asperger Syndrome and Judaism

Over on Cross-Currents my friend R. Yitzchok Adlerstein has a thoughtful piece regarding Asperger Syndrome. I may be biased in this considering the people who served as inspiration for the piece. As R. Adlerstein tells it:

In the last few months, my wife and I have had the pleasure of hosting a young couple for occasional Shabbosim. Both live with AS. ... The couple know that I am writing this; we’ve discussed the content. They are quite open about their experience. Nonetheless, I am not going to mention their names.) Both are frum. The husband is finishing his doctoral dissertation; his wife works with special-needs kids. They are very, very bright. (One of them often periodically gives me a hard time as a commenter to Cross-Currents.)

I will leave it to my readers' imagination as to the identity of this Asperger couple.

What impresses me about R. Adlerstein here is that more than just about any neurotypical I know, he actually seems to get the challenges faced by Aspergers living in a neurotypical world and manages to avoid the trap of "why can't you people just learn to cope like 'normal' people." As R. Adlerstein forcefully notes:

Why? Because “our” world doesn’t make any real sense to them. They don’t understand it. It seems unnatural and arbitrary. (They may be closer to the truth than we are!) How they get by is intriguing. Since they can’t really make our rules second nature, they cope with them by laboriously learning protocols of reaction. They learn, step by step, how to interact with a person whom they do not know. They memorize steps of conversation that they may hear, or should initiate. They learn phrases with which to deal with the conversation they cannot comprehend. For example, when faced with something they are not sure was said in jest or not, they will interrupt and directly ask the intent of the speaker.

In a social setting, they often have to deal with input from multiple speakers. For each, decisions need to be made. Do I launch into Protocol E after that last remark, or should we try Protocal S? After a while, their brains begin to resemble an overtaxed and overheated CPU. Aside from the stress, none of it ever really makes sense. Dealing with the arbitrary is the price they must pay, without ever entertaining the hope that they will understand. This is life; deal with it by obeying arbitrary rules, responding with fixed modes of response. Every minute can mean a new challenge of having to consult this rule book, and responding according to what they have been taught. Every slip-up, every deviation, will exact a penalty and price.

Where R. Adlerstein wishes to take all of this is interesting. I suspect that many readers will object. I personally am still working through my thoughts regarding the matter. R. Adlerstein sees Aspergers as a potential model for religious behavior.

If occurred to me that if, as the gemara says, Hillel obligates all the poor, then AS people obligate the rest of us. We chafe – consciously or otherwise – at having to live with rules we often do not understand. We groan under the weight of so many restrictions and limitations. We don’t like the pressure, nor the fact that we cannot comprehend why we must obey these rules with such exactitude.

Listening to G-d’s rules is not at all like obeying the human variety. We are maaminim, bnei maaminim. We know that HKBH is never, ever, arbitrary. We have perfect confidence that His rules make Divine sense, even if not humanly comprehended. We have the advantage of sensing the depth and beauty of most of His rules – it is a minority that trouble us. We know that the stakes are much higher than the social acceptance that is at stake for AS folks. We can appreciate that if He asks us to live our lives constantly checking with His rule book for the propriety of our next decision, then it is possible to live life in this way.

Is it better to be admired or excommunicated? While the former is truly tempting, I fear that mainstreaming Aspergers could become a means of co-opting us, taking away the potentially subversive role for Aspergers to play in religion.

There is a difference between the divine commands associated with religion and human social rules. While divine commands can appear to be extremely arbitrary, they have the advantage over human social rules in that they are usually being made explicit. Part of the problem with human social rules is that not only are they arbitrary, but they are often never clearly stated. Instead, they are left to the intuition of others. Since we Aspergers operate on a different wavelength, we are apt to simply miss the message. An organized religion that offers me the opportunity to exempt myself from human social rules (though not ethical ones) in exchange for following its commandments certainly has my support.

That being said, there is another side to all this that R. Adlerstein, for good reason, does not discuss. He simply starts from the assumption that we Aspergers accept neurotypical social rules and infers that one should show similar obedience to God. Now, what should we conclude from the fact Aspergers, such as myself, do not accept neurotypical rules? We may obey them out of practical necessity, but we mock them as arbitrary and unnecessary. In the end, we do not accept them as holding any legitimate moral authority over us. Having grown skeptical of the very concept of top-down authoritarian rule, how should we react to the notion of the top-down authoritarian rule of God?

I see nothing heretical in what I am saying. As a Jew, part of my religion is to argue with God. This coming Rosh Ha-Shanah, I will be acknowledging God as my king, who has absolute power over me. That being said, there is a whole other side to the High Holidays. Despite God's omnipotence, he is, by definition, unable to force our free acceptance of him as our moral authority to be obeyed. Like any politician, God must ask us to give our assent. We humans cannot let God off lightly. We have our demands for a sweet new year and complete pardon for all is only the beginning of that list. How could anyone have the chutzpah to treat God in such a manner and turn the tables on him? I guess one needs to have Asperger Syndrome or simply be Jewish.