Jewish Voices on Autism

According to the CDC 1% of the world’s population, or about seventy-five million people has an autism spectrum disorder.

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, I’ve compiled a list of books featuring Jewish writers and Jewish characters featuring people and characters impacted by autism. This is the fourth installment in my monthly series, celebrating the complex diversity within the Jewish tribe by highlighting own-voice literature.

I hope you’ll consider adding these titles to your reading list. If you’ve read any of them, be sure to share your views and express your appreciation to the author by leaving a review on sites like Amazon and Goodreads.

Join the conversation by adding your suggestions for other titles to check out in the comments.


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Get a Grip Vivy Cohen by Sarah Kapit

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ivy Cohen is determined. She’s had enough of playing catch in the park. She’s ready to pitch for a real baseball team.

But Vivy’s mom is worried about Vivy being the only girl on the team, and the only autistic kid. She wants Vivy to forget about pitching, but Vivy won’t give up. When her social skills teacher makes her write a letter to someone, Vivy knows exactly who to choose: her hero, Major League pitcher VJ Capello. Then two amazing things happen: A coach sees Vivy’s amazing knuckleball and invites her to join his team. And VJ starts writing back!

Now Vivy is a full-fledged pitcher, with a catcher as a new best friend and a steady stream of advice from VJ. But when a big accident puts her back on the bench, Vivy has to fight to stay on the team.

Autism Uncensored by Whitney Ellenby

So begins the turbulent ride of one parent’s decision, crafted in despair and desperation, to abandon traditional interventions for her autistic son in favor of a “hands on” approach of repeatedly exposing her son to real-world settings. Autism Uncensored is an unrestricted portal into the mind of someone who had no intention of sacrificing her career or life for Autism, unaware of the many ways it would irreversibly redefine both. As she clarifies at the outset, “this is not the story of a miraculous breakthrough or recovery,” Zack is still very much autistic and always will be. It is instead the true, real-time account of her decision to allow Zack to indulge in the very behaviors that formal therapies sought to extinguish, to disclose Zack’s diagnosis in public settings, and to repeatedly expose him to real-world situations and override his tantrums regardless of public ridicule or scorn.

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Autism Uncensored goes where no other book dares–revealing the private disgrace and self-blame about having a “defective” child; the near disintegration of marriage; the failure of the traditional behavioral interventions; and the mercenary way in which service providers prey on parents’ desperation for a cure. It is a personal manifesto about how a socially integrated life is attainable regardless of whether a child overcomes the major limitations of Autism, sparking a new conversation which goes beyond simply accepting persons with Autism for who they are, but considers pushing them beyond their comfort zones to learn who they are capable of becoming. An unstoppable ride with jolting twists and turns, Autism Uncensored will leave you exhilarated, informed and still gasping for air.

Queen for a Day by Maxine Rosaler

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After Mimi Slavitt’s three-year-old son, Danny, is diagnosed with autism, she finds herself in a world nearly as isolating as her son’s. It is a position she shares only with mothers like herself, women chosen against their will for lives of sacrifice and martyrdom. Searching for miracles, begging for the help of heartless bureaucracies while arranging every minute of every day for children who can never be left alone, they exist in a state of perpetual crisis, normal life always just out of reach.
 
In chapters told from Mimi’s point of view and theirs, these women emerge as conflicted, complex individuals, totally unsuited for sainthood, often dreaming of the day they can just walk away. Taking its title from the 1950s reality TV show in which the contestants—housewives living lives filled with pain and suffering—competed with one another for deluxe refrigerators and sets of stainless steel silverware, Queen for a Day portrays a group of imperfect women coping under enormous pressure.

In her impressive debut, Rosaler tells their stories in ironic, precise, and vivid prose, with humor and insight born of firsthand experience, and offers readers “the gut-heaving, throat-choking, darkly comic truth—about parenthood, marriage, love, rage, and hard-won survival” (Eileen Pollack, author of The Bible of Dirty Jokes).


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Asperger’s Children: The Origins of Autism in Nazi Vienna by Edith Sheffer

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In 1930s and 1940s Vienna, child psychiatrist Hans Asperger sought to define autism as a diagnostic category, aiming to treat those children, usually boys, he deemed capable of participating fully in society. 

Depicted as a compassionate and devoted researcher, Asperger was in fact deeply influenced by Nazi psychiatry. Although he did offer individualized care to children he deemed promising, he also prescribed harsh institutionalization and even transfer to Spiegelgrund, one of the Reich’s deadliest killing centers, for children with greater disabilities, who, he held, could not integrate into the community.  

With sensitivity and passion, Edith Sheffer’s scrupulous research reveals the heartbreaking voices and experiences of many of these children, while also illuminating a Nazi regime obsessed with sorting the population into categories, cataloging people by race, heredity, politics, religion, sexuality, criminality, and biological defects – labels that became the basis of either rehabilitation or persecution and extermination.

Uniquely Human by Barry M. Prizant, PhD

A groundbreaking book on autism, by one of the world’s leading experts, who portrays autism as a unique way of being human—this is “required reading….Breathtakingly simple and profoundly positive” (Chicago Tribune).

Autism therapy typically focuses on ridding individuals of “autistic” symptoms such as difficulties interacting socially, problems in communicating, sensory challenges, and repetitive behavior patterns. Now Dr. Barry M. Prizant offers a new and compelling paradigm: the most successful approaches to autism don’t aim at fixing a person by eliminating symptoms, but rather seeking to understand the individual’s experience and what underlies the behavior.

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Ketchup is my Favorite Vegetable by Liane Kupferberg Carter

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How do you create an ordinary family life, while dealing with the extraordinary needs of an autistic child?

Meet Mickey – charming, funny, compassionate, and autistic. In this unflinching portrait of family life, Liane Kupferberg Carter gives us a mother’s insight into what really goes on in the two decades after diagnosis. From the double-blow of a subsequent epilepsy diagnosis, to bullying and Bar Mitzvahs, Mickey’s struggles and triumphs along the road to adulthood are honestly detailed to show how one family learned to grow and thrive with autism.

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Each Day I Like it Better by Amy Lutz

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In the fall of 2009, Amy Lutz and her husband, Andy, struggled with one of the worst decisions parents could possibly face: whether they could safely keep their autistic ten-year-old son, Jonah, at home any longer. Multiple medication trials, a long procession of behavior modification strategies, and even an almost year-long hospitalization had all failed to control his violent rages. Desperate to stop the attacks that endangered family members, caregivers, and even Jonah himself, Amy and Andy decided to try the controversial procedure of electroconvulsive therapy or ECT. Over the last three years, Jonah has received 136 treatments. His aggression has greatly diminished, and for the first time Jonah, now fourteen, is moving to a less restricted school.

Each Day I Like It Better recounts the journeys of Jonah and seven other children and their families (interviewed by the author) in their quests for appropriate educational placements and therapeutic interventions. The author describes their varied, but mostly successful, experiences with ECT.


A survey of research on pediatric ECT is incorporated into the narrative, and a foreword by child psychiatrist Dirk Dhossche and ECT researcher and practitioner Charles Kellner explains how ECT works, the side effects patients may experience, and its current use in the treatment of autism, catatonia, and violent behavior in children.

Following Ezra by Tom Fields-Meyer

A heartwarming, intimate and amusing memoir of a father’s experience raising his autistic son.

When Tom Fields-Meyer’s son Ezra was three and showing early signs of autism, a therapist suggested that the father needed to grieve.
“For what?” he asked.
The answer: “For the child he didn’t turn out to be.”
That moment helped strengthen the author’s resolve to do just the opposite: to love the child Ezra was, a quirky boy with a fascinating and complex mind. Full of tender moments and unexpected humor, Following Ezra is the story of a father and son on a ten-year journey from Ezra’s diagnosis to the dawn of his adolescence. It celebrates his growth from a remote toddler to an extraordinary young man, connected in his own remarkable ways to the world around him.

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Shtum by Jem Lester

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The international literary triumph with rights sold in seven countries, Shtum is a powerhouse debut that untangles the complicated strands of personal identity, family history, and lapsed communication. Drawn from Jem Lester’s experience of raising an autistic child, Shtum is “a darker, sadder version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but just as moving” (Observer).

In this darkly funny and emotive novel, Ben Jewell has hit a breaking point. His profoundly autistic ten-year-old son, Jonah, has never spoken, and the family is struggling to cope. So when Ben and Jonah are forced to move in with Georg, Ben’s aging and cantankerous father, three generations of men―one who can’t talk, two who won’t―are thrown together. As Ben confronts single fatherhood, he must learn some harsh lessons about accountability, all before the arrival of a tribunal that will determine the future of Jonah’s education.

Funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, Lester’s debut is a powerful and unapologetic story of love, sacrifice, and determination that examines the vagaries of human emotion and provokes discussion about an often misunderstood disorder. With streaks of brilliant humor and levity, Shtum is ultimately uplifting and compulsively readable, easy to recommend, and memorable long after the final pages.

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The Many Mysteries of the Finkel Family by Sarah Kapit

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When 12-year-old Lara Finkel starts her very own detective agency, FIASCCO (Finkel Investigation Agency Solving Consequential Crimes Only), she does not want her sister, Caroline, involved. She and Caroline don’t have to do everything together! But Caroline won’t give up, and when she brings Lara the firm’s first mystery, Lara relents, and the mysteries start piling up.

But Lara and Caroline’s truce doesn’t last for long. Caroline normally uses her tablet to talk, but now she’s busily texting a new friend. Lara can’t figure out what the two of them are up to, but it can’t be good. And Caroline doesn’t like Lara’s snooping – she’s supposed to be solving other people’s mysteries, not spying on Caroline! As FIASCCO and the Finkel family mysteries spin out of control, can Caroline and Lara find a way to be friends again? 

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