On the one hand, I'm one of those people who think it is a little ridiculous that we have a "month" for virtually everything. I mean, awareness, when it needs to be raised, should happen all the time. And the things we appreciate, we should always appreciate; not just for a month or a day each year, but all year long (yeah, I know, Hallmark loves me...). Honestly, do we really need a "National Pet Month" (it's May, if you are wondering) or a "Dance Appreciation Month" (July)?
But then I think about the significant things that can happen when passionate, like-minded individuals come together for a common purpose, and I can see the value in having a dedicated day or even a month. It can renew our sense of enthusiasm, help us to raise funds along with awareness and provide opportunities to both teach and learn. It's why I continue to support Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month each February, and it's why I am writing this post in honor of Autism Awareness Month, which many (including me) prefer to call Autism Acceptance Month. To be even more specific, I am writing this post in honor of a couple of amazing people.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to learn about Sam Gelfand, who was then about to become bar mitzvah, as he had developed a unique Mitzvah Project (Many synagogues ask their b'nei mitzvah to develop a project to demonstrate their commitment to performing mitzvot (commandments) in addition to preparing to read Torah). Often, these projects become simple collections of money or stuff, to be donated to great causes. But Sam was doing something significant. You see, Sam has Asperger's Syndrome, and he decided that it was important to teach others what it was like to live with Asperger's, in the hope that people could learn to be more tolerant of others.
What began as a B'nei Mitzvah Project soon mushroomed into a multi-state speaking tour! And now, years later, Sam is still presenting his story to audiences of all ages. His message is delivered with passion and humor, engaging those who listen in a way that is real and current. He speaks of the years that he was bullied, of the many obstacles he has overcome and of his plans for the future, all while reinforcing his message of tolerance and acceptance of others.
But Sam is not the whole story. While he is amazing in his own right, the minute you meet his mother, Allison Craigie, you realize that she is they key to Sam's success. She is the epitome of what we hope we can each be as a parent; supportive, committed, determined. In Helping Parents Find Their Way, I reference those parents who become strong advocates for their children. Allison is the true embodiment of this vision. I am honored to have gotten to know her and to call her my friend. And I am really proud to share that she is featured in the book "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum".
If you have the opportunity, bring Sam in to speak to your community, Jewish or secular. And while he's there, ask Allison to lead a conversation with, or a workshop for, parents.