Autism and ‘Mussar’


 As a psychotherapist, I can recognize the signs of post-traumatic stress. Patients often re-experience terror years after a horrific experience; they increasingly avoid anything that might serve as a reminder of the original trauma, and as a result, become more isolated.

So, I was surprised when, around 10 years ago, I began to experience similar emotions.

That was around the time that my beautiful blue-eyed son stopped using the few words he had babbled when he was a year old. He also appeared to have trouble hearing us, and didn't respond to his name.

Ten years ago, my son Noah was diagnosed with autism.

On the face of it, an autism diagnosis bears little resemblance to serving in combat or surviving rape, events typically labeled "traumatic." Perhaps this was a trauma with a lower-case "t," because Noah's diagnosis certainly shook my sense that the world was a safe place.

I found myself re-experiencing the initial pain of his diagnosis at surprising moments: when a friend proudly announced that her son had gotten into a wonderful kindergarten, or when my niece, four years Noah's junior, began to talk circles around him.

I dropped out of the mommy's group I'd been part of, and made excuses to avoid any event that might invite me to compare my son with other children.

My sadness and feelings of isolation were complicated by a chronic sense of loss that was difficult to articulate. "Ambiguous loss" is a term originally used to refer to the pain of those who don't know if their missing loved ones are dead or alive. I found that this phrase captured my own experience of grieving.

It was intriguing to learn about "post-traumatic growth" — the notion that, out of the struggle with trauma, individuals can experience more meaningful relationships, a greater sense of gratitude and a heightened personal strength.

Five years ago, I found a path to post-traumatic growth through a 19th-century Jewish practice of ethical development called Mussar, also known as the "Jewish moralist movement," emanating from the book of Proverbs 1:2.

When I first heard about Mussar from a friend, I had the misguided notion that the practice would help me reach a Zen-like peace apart from life's daily chaos. Instead, my teacher, Rabbi Ira F. Stone (of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City), made it clear that the true measure of Mussar practice takes place in the midst of our messy and often conflicted relationships.

The focus of Mussar study, according to Stone, is to "bear the burden of the other."

At first, I thought that I was already carrying too much of Noah's burden. As I began engaging in text study — and focusing on character traits such as patience, order and equanimity — I became aware that my dedication to him had made me something of a martyr.

Martyrdom might have looked noble, but my older daughter's needs were going unnoticed, and my relationship with my husband was suffering.

Plane Speaking
I recognized a profound wisdom in the airline attendants' preflight instruction: In an emergency, parents need to use the oxygen mask first before passing it to their children.

I hired more help for my son, allowed friends and relatives to lend a hand, and found more positive ways to take care of myself and my loved ones.

The knowledge I've gained from Mussar also led me to a new passion, which is helping parents and grandparents cope with the demands of raising their special-needs children.

Two years ago, I began offering psychotherapy services and workshops called "Surviving and Thriving After the Diagnosis." Mussar concepts influence my work with parents and inspire my clients, regardless of their religious background.

The poet T.S. Eliot wrote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

My son has been my greatest teacher, for in struggling to help him, I have learned to be more intentional in all of my relationships, and have rediscovered my sustaining connection to my "others" and to Judaism.

Sonia Voynow is a psychotherapist in private practice in Narberth and can be reached via:


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