Photo Credit: Jacki Edry

Title: Moving Forward: Reflections on Autism, Neurodiversity, Brain Surgery and Faith
By Jacki Edry

 

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While many of us habitually make judgments about other people and their actions, the Rabbis clearly teach us: “Don’t judge your friend until you’ve reached his place” (Avot 2:4). This means that we must not judge another person’s actions until we have come to the exact circumstances that led to their acts. Only then can we begin to form judgments, and in most cases, this means that we never have the right to judge others because we will never truly face the exact same situation as theirs.

This book, however, illustrates the notion that if it does somehow come to pass that we find ourselves in the same condition as another person, we can constructively use that experience to better our understanding of their behavior. Such is the selfless approach demonstrated by the book’s author, Mrs. Jacki Edry.

Mrs. Edry has an extensive background in education, having previously worked with autistic children. She wrote her thesis at Hampshire College on the topic of how the educational system can better cope with autistic students. In her initial research on the topic, she theorized about what might trigger autistic children to seemingly act out in the ways that they often do, and periodically shut themselves off from the world. She understood that these so-called misbehaviors are not the results of cognitive or deliberate misanthropic choices, but are generally natural reactions to sensory overload or sensory processing confusion (similar to dyslexia).

Later on in life, Mrs. Edry found out about a little-known condition called Irlen Syndrome, a neurological phenomenon related to visual perception and processing. In many cases, it turns out that neurological diagnoses like dyslexia and ADHD are actually cases of Irlen Syndrome masquerading as a different disorder. For example, both Irlen Syndrome and dyslexia can cause distortions and challenges in visual perception and reading, which can, in turn, lead to difficulties in concentration. Just imagine if your visual environment is unstable, with letters dancing across the page or distorted depth perception. Understandably, it would be difficult to concentrate.

Misdiagnoses and misunderstandings about neurologically challenged people stem from the mental health industry’s inability to properly evaluate people who live in totally different circumstances from their own. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists can only work with the data they have, and can only build on their understanding using their own faculties and the realities within which they live. Even if they tried as hard as they could, they simply do not have the tools or experiences to always understand what people with neurological issues are going through and how they perceive the world.

After making aliyah to Israel as a young adult, Mrs. Edry merited to establish a beautiful family and raise several neurodiverse children, each of whom had their own issues to deal with. But in April 2013, her life changed forever: Mrs. Edry underwent a complicated and arduous surgery to remove a tumor growing on her brain stem. When she awoke from this ordeal, she was never the same person. She was now subject to many of the same sensory difficulties that she had studied earlier on in life and had witnessed personally with her own children.

This unique set of circumstances enabled her to experience firsthand all the various ideas about neurodiversity and neurofunction that she had theorized about earlier on. She could now use direct observations on herself to better understand the issues at hand and confirm her theories. For many of us, people with neurodiversity might appear to be like a closed book that we simply cannot understand. But Mrs. Edry cannot only sympathize with them; she can empathize.

This fascinating book is broken up into three parts. The first section lays out Mrs. Edry’s ideas and advice to parents of autistic and otherwise neurodiverse children. This includes things like how to cope with the diagnoses and other practical suggestions. It also discusses how irregularities in the senses of seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting can affect neurodiverse people in varying ways.

The second section of the book is the shortest, but most inspiring. In this section, the author paints a vivid picture of her devoted relationship to G-d, the Torah, the Jewish people and the Holy Land. It is these strong connections that later served her well in trying times.

The book’s third section is presented in the form of a diary that Mrs. Edry began just weeks after she woke up from her life-altering brain surgery and continued through the Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020. In these diary entries, Mrs. Edry struggles with the reality that is facing her, but remains optimistic and places her trust in G-d. Throughout these diary entries, Mrs. Edry offers the reader various observations she has had about neurodiversity and how her situation helps her better understand those types of conditions, all the while painting a picture of the challenges which had become her lot in life.

The book concludes with a short prayer expressing Mrs. Edry’s hopes and dreams for the future. This prayer takes the poetic form of a sincere Jewish soul reaching out to her Creator. Indeed, Mrs. Edry’s sincerity and selflessness shine through on almost every page of this book, and this reviewer hopes that G-d grants her a quick and complete recovery from all her ailments.

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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.