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Everyone Has Something to Learn, Everyone Has Something to Teach

Meredith Polsky

listen; MatanIn Pirkei Avot Ben Zoma said: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” This is a central Jewish value. Everyone has something to learn, and everyone has something to teach.

Some people communicate more readily than others. Some people can speak in clear sentences, others cannot. Some people who have trouble communicating in words repeat things. To truly learn from one another, we must listen.

Ariel is an autistic student in Orli’s second grade Hebrew school class. This conversation between Ariel and Orli is an example of how someone’s communication can be misunderstood:

Orli: What do we do on Shabbat?

Ariel: Sunday’s on Shabbat!

Orli: No, Shabbat is on Saturday.

Ariel: Sunday!

Orli (in a silly tone): Saturday!

Ariel: Sunday!

Orli: Ariel, enough repeating. Shabbat is on Saturday.

Ariel and Orli are talking past each other. Orli thinks that she corrected Ariel’s confusion and doesn’t understand why he keeps repeating it. Ariel knows that Orli doesn’t understand what he meant and doesn’t understand why she is getting annoyed with him.

If Orli had gone into the conversation expecting Ariel’s meaningful contribution, the conversation might have gone like this:

Orli: What do we do on Shabbat?

Ariel: Sunday’s on Shabbat!

Orli: No, Shabbat is on Saturday.

Ariel: Sunday’s on Shabbat!

Orli: Are you talking about when Shabbat is, or something else?

Ariel: Something else.

Orli: Do you mean Sunday-the-day or Sunday-the-food?

Ariel: Food.

Orli: Do you eat sundaes on Shabbat?

Ariel: After shul. Dessert.

Orli: You eat sundaes for dessert after shul?

Ariel: Yes. Every week.

Orli: Eating tasty food is one thing we do for oneg Shabbat. In my family, we eat chicken every Friday. Does anyone else eat special food on Shabbat?

These conversations illustrate a common disconnect. Often, people assume that they understand and that the autistic person is just repeating the same thing over and over for no reason or because they are being stubborn and inflexible or even obnoxious and pushy.

However, what is really happening is that the autistic person is communicating using the words they have, and is not being understood. Most typically developing people are able to rephrase things when they are not being understood. People with autism or other communication disabilities aren’t always able to do that without help.

communication, MatanIt is important to recognize the value of communication, regardless of the person’s verbal ability or the extent of their vocabulary, and work to figure out what is being communicated. In thinking through such situations it’s also important to take someone’s age into account. A 15-year-old who has trouble using words reliably isn’t a toddler. They’ve had the same number of years as their peers to develop and learn things. If you are the one with more words and you want the communication to happen in words, then you may have to provide the words that will make communication possible.

Everyone has Torah to teach and questions to ask. Some may need help communicating, but they always deserve respect.

Everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach. Our communities are at their best when we teach everyone and learn from everyone.

Ruti Regan; Matan

Ruti Regan is Matan’s first Rabbinic intern. A 4th year Rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a long-time disability advocate Ruti will contribute her own teachings via the Matan blog, webinars, Matan Institutes and new curricular projects.

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