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A Life with Autism


George also became a walking directory of the store’s inventory, memorizing the catalog number and location of every one of the pieces of hardware on its shelves. Need a part? Just ask George, and he would tell you exactly where it was. As long as George was there, the store didn’t need a computerized inventory tracking system.

Thirty years ago, when George’s father agreed to sell the hardware store, he attached a special condition to the sale. George would have to be kept on as an employee. But the new owner didn’t need any convincing. During the brief time he had spent in the store, he had already seen just how indispensable George was to its smooth operation. The new owner assured George’s father that as long as he owned the store, George would have a job there, and was true to his word.

George still has problems with social interactions. He seldom makes eye contact and rarely expresses emotion, but sometimes unexpectedly blurts out what is on his mind. Some of his symptoms we now associate with autism.

In recent years, George has been living in a group home for adults with developmental disabilities located near the Young Israel of Avenue J. He davens there every Shabbos morning, and stands up after the drasha to say out loud and with obvious feeling, “Good Shabbos, rabbi!”  George is also scrupulous about reciting kaddish in memory of his parents on their Yahrzeits each year.

George is a vivid example of how even individuals with more serious autistic symptoms can still lead useful, satisfying lives, and how certain characteristics of autism can make them more suitable for particular types of jobs. Some autistic individuals are heavily visually-oriented, which makes them suitable for training in the graphic arts. Others are fascinated by video games or computers, making them good candidates for high end jobs in computer and information technology.

According to Dr. Shore, the preparation of a child with autism for success in later life needs to begin at home. Their parents must recognize and accept the special nature of their child and adjust their attitudes and expectations accordingly, rather than becoming what Shore calls “aphids” – autistic parents heavily in denial.

Shore believes that, “it is important for parents to explain the situation to their child in the appropriate manner and at the right time, usually when the child realizes he is having problems and starts asking questions.”

He recommends a 4-step approach to that process. First talk about the child’s strengths, and then about the child’s challenges (without using the words “weakness” or “disability”). Next the parent should encourage their child to make “non-judgmental comparisons with family members and friends, demonstrating how everyone has their own different strengths and challenges.” The final stage is to reveal the diagnosis to the child, “after having created the proper framework in which the child can understand it, without damaging his self-esteem and confidence.”

Dr. Shore suggests that as high-functioning children with autism grow up, they be directed into potential fields of employment where some of the characteristics of autism can work to their advantage. For example, autistic individuals prefer predictable interactions. They are particularly good at repeating instructions and actions exactly. Like George Kramer, they often commit to memory all of the detailed information they need.

This makes them good candidates for jobs in which they need to quickly recall and repeat the same information, such as manning a customer service desk or an information booth, or jobs in which they need to master complex rules and routines, such as data entry or tax return preparation.

Dr. Shore notes that it is often easy for employers to eliminate triggers for autistic behavioral problems from their workplace environment with minor adjustments. For example, individuals who are hypersensitive to sounds could be moved to a quieter part of the office, or simply be given noise-dampening headphones. Others who are sensitive to the overhead florescent lighting in an office might be given a baseball cap with a visor to make them more comfortable.

When Dr. Shore was diagnosed with autism as a child, his parents, too, resisted the recommendation that he be institutionalized. Instead, they provided him with what we would call today an intensive, home-based early intervention program, which emphasized music, movement, sensory integration, narration and integration, albeit on a trial and error basis. For example, when the time came to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah, Stephen learned the layning by memorizing it as a song. The training he received from his parents was similar to the cognitive-developmental systems approach for children on the autism spectrum which is known today as the “Miller Method.”

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