October 2, 2008
Transcendence: Jacob Artson’s eloquence and spirit defy his severe autism diagnosis
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As I talk about Jacob's journey through severe autism with his parents, Rabbi Brad and Elana Artson, Jacob takes a noisy stomp around the house, upstairs and down, banging, singing, letting out some guttural vocals.
It's hard to reconcile this outward behavior with the lucidity of the ideas he's been sharing with me.
"You hear so much from autism organizations about what a horrible disease this is and how the parents have been robbed of their children, yada, yada, yada, and I suppose on a certain level that is true," Jacob told me, typing the words on a special keyboard that allows him to fully express his ideas. "But I refuse to live the rest of my life believing I am a defective human being. I have gifts and talents and challenges just like everyone else, and I have the same desire for connection and a need to be treated with dignity and respect."
Words like these coming from an autistic boy are moving and stunning on their own, but when Jacob comes back from his break, he astonishes again: First he smothers his mother and father in hugs and kisses and then offers commentary on the things they've been saying while he was gone.
Jacob can hear through walls.
In fact, Jacob Artson, who just turned 16, has spent his life facing down walls -- working through them, over them, around them, or sitting right on top of them with his feet dangling over the edge.
Jacob is considered severely autistic -- it takes great effort for him to regulate his movement and his behavior, and he has very little spontaneous, relevant speech.
At the same time, he is intelligent, optimistic, spiritual, witty and more emotionally attuned than most people.
He conveys his thoughts through a method called "facilitated communication," which means Elana, or another facilitator, holds a hard plastic card the size of a take-out menu with the standard QWERTY keyboard printed on it. As we talk, Elana supports Jacob's wrist and helps keep him focused and calm. She reads aloud as his finger skims over the board.
In this High Holy Day season of cheshbon hanefesh -- accounting of the soul —Jacob puts into stark relief the notion that the outer self is not always a reflection of the inner. His reality challenges us: Do we judge people by what we see? Do negative myths become self-fulfilling prophecies, or do we summon all our resources to shatter those myths, as Jacob and his family do every day? Do we define ourselves by our limitations, or do we forgive our own shortcomings? And are we capable, like Jacob, of transcending obstacles? Of listening through walls?
The family visited the White House during the "Opening the Gates of Torah" conference in Washington, D.C., December 2007