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September 17, 2014 | 22nd Elul 5774

Special Needs Bar Mitzvah

Dear Shana,

I teach Hebrew School in a fairly new synagogue and I also tutor b'nei mitzvah kids.

Next year, a child with high functioning autism (call him David) is supposed to celebrate a bar mitzvah. I have taught him how to read Hebrew, but I need to prepare him for "something" for his bar mitzvah. He has trouble following multi-step directions, staying focused and recognizing social cues. His is basically a social disorder, but there are many other things that are affected. David often needs lists with pictures to help him clearly understand what comes next. This would be especially important for him to have during a ceremony so that he would know when everything was going to happen. I don't know what my objectives should be, nor how to achieve them. I am not sure what to do to structure his education.
Are there any resources easy enough for a volunteer non-clergy to understand?

Planning a meaningful Bar Mitzvah for a young man with autistic spectrum disorder can be challenging, but also very rewarding. There are several important issues to consider as you help him approach this important Jewish milestone. First, does he understand the concept of a bar mitzvah, on a basic level? Does he view it as an exciting and special opportunity? A positive approach will go a long way toward ensuring cooperation. It is also important to determine the level of skills that the child has. In this case, you say that he can read Hebrew. Does this extend to prayers and Torah reading, or is he reading at an introductory level? Does he understand what he is reading, or is it an exercise in decoding? Does he use any type of communication system or device (pictures, computerized talkers, etc.)?

You will need to select prayers or parts of the service that are higher frequency in terms of use, and that he will have occasion to use again in the future. For example, the Barchu and Sh’ma may be something he would use more often in synagogue than Ashrei. The Kiddush and Hamotzi would work as well. If you are going to put the time and effort in to teaching him, the content should be something that can be generalized to other services and situations. If he is not overly sensitive to sound, he might do better with prayers that are sung or set to music.

You can also tape record the Torah reading (or other prayers) and have him operate the tape recorder at the right time. This also gives you some back-up if he decides not to participate on the day of the bar mitzvah.

The entire bar mitzvah will need to be scripted and a visual schedule developed. Pictures are a great idea, especially if you can use Polaroids of the young man engaged in each activity. If he reads in English, subtitle the pictures. You will need to review the schedule as much as the prayers themselves. Rehearse as much as possible in the location where the bar mitzvah will be held, as children with ASD learn best in context. You will want him to be as familiar and comfortable as possible with the sanctuary.

You should include as many hands-on activities as possible. For example, the bar mitzvah boy should put on the tallit (if he will tolerate it) open the Aron Kodesh, carry the Torah if possible, hold the kiddush cup, etc. Anything ceremonial and experiential will be meaningful additions to the service. I have also had children who painted a scene from the parashah or played a melody on an instrument as part of the service. Look to the child’s island of competence, and incorporate it into the ceremony.

With regard to a speech, much will depend on his communication skills and frustration tolerance. Again, everything must be scripted, and picture cues may be helpful. You will need to help him find a balance between what he wants to say and what he can say. I have found that some children with ASD actually have some very profound thoughts and insights, and become frustrated when they can’t express themselves to the fullest degree. Even with the best plans you need to be aware that he may not perform on the day of the bar mitzvah. Sometimes the child is just too overwhelmed and shuts down. In that case, people will just need to understand that autism is an unpredictable disorder and that the child will do the best he can. The keys to a successful experience are: structure, visual input and cueing, appropriate opportunities for self-expression, and practice. Good luck and enjoy!

Shana Erenberg
Special Needs Consultant

Some resources:

Planning a Special Bar/Bat Mitzvah (This was written by my dear friend, Becca Hornstein.) http://www.jewishfamily.com/jc/lifecycle/planning_a_special.phtml

Autism Society of America
http://www.autism-society.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Religion_and_Autism

Creating a special celebration for special children http://www.clevelandjewishnews.com/articles/2005/01/24/special/mitzvah/special07.txt

Resources: Jewish Disability Related Information
http://www.yesodot.org/resources/jewish_disability/online.htm

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