For just a few moments I would like to set aside all of the COVID worry, the rule of law crisis swirling around Washington DC and everything else, to share a few positive thoughts about my son Aaron(27, ASD). This is a story of persistence and redemption, of nascent success that has even more resonance for having happened during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
In October 2018, we threw the cards in the air and relocated from Washington DC to Israel. At that time our goal was to find a program where Aaron could live and work independent of his parents (us), and where he could find personal fulfillment and growth. This seemed a tall order, and I am sure that many of our friends and relatives thought that we were crazy.
Fast forward 2 years and we have found a better way forward for Aaron here in Israel, where he is living at Kibbutz Heftziba, in the foothills of the Gilboa Mountain (images from his new home at a Beit Eckstein site above).
Aaron has benefited from a comprehensive network of supported living and meaningful employment/educational opportunities for individuals with special needs including ASD. We have found advanced therapies and approaches that have helped Aaron immeasurably in addressing his anxiety and improving his emotional bandwidth, focus, and development.
Aaron has regained his physical health, lost 50+ pounds, somehow gained over an inch in height, and even fell in love.
Of course nothing happens overnight, and development is never a straight line – there are zigs and zags and everything takes time, particularly when we had to learn a whole new system, in a different language, set up housekeeping (more than once), and also over the last year deal with a pandemic, lockdowns, etc. And no one has worked harder than Aaron to make progress.
Everything seems impossible until it is obvious.me
Before we made out big move, my son Aaron and I traveled for a 3-week pilot trip to learn more about resources for young adults on the Autism Spectrum. I will never forget our conversation immediately after arrival, in the car en route to close friends where we would spend our first few nights. I said to Aaron that we were looking to find opportunities to make him the ‘best possible Aaron’ that he could be. His response was that in the US, the programs were making him ‘the worst.’
Unfortunately Aaron was right. At this stage the U.S. does not offer a national roadmap for our young adults with special needs, with only limited funding and programming available on a state-by-state basis. For hundreds of thousands of families (probably an understatement), the end of high school is like falling off a cliff.
Despite the active engagement of wonderful social workers in Washington DC who really cared about Aaron, we ended up pulling Aaron out of the system for his own physical and emotional safety. As Aaron’s stellar psychiatrist put it, Aaron needed ever-higher levels of behavioral meds just to keep his equilibrium in an environment that made no sense. This situation was unsustainable.
The lie that we tell ourselves is that our children with special needs don’t know what they are missing. The reality is that too much of the time they know what they are missing and live in silent despair. (They already knew the misery of social and economic isolation before COVID.) I experienced my son’s heartbreak after high school graduation on the honor roll when he was able to articulate his feelings of ‘being left behind’ while his friends left for college and beyond. He was a cheerleader for his sister’s college success but longed for a dorm room of his own.
Now he has his own small apartment (exterior shown above), at a wonderful Beit Eckstein program in the North of Israel near the Gilboa Mountains. He has started his dream job working at a therapeutic farm in Megiddo (aka Armageddon), together with his “Heftziba Capsule” of new friends. (Due to COVID-19, Israel’s programs operate on the Capsule model.)
Clearly what we came to Israel to find should be replicable in the U.S. I am sharing my ‘good news’ story in the hope that the incoming Biden Administration may initiate a meaningful national conversation on the needs of individuals with special needs on employment, broader inclusion and social engagement.
As I learned years ago from Professor Reuven Feuerstein (z”l), the only limitation on learning is lifespan – not just for those with special needs but for all of us.