On War And Autism

by Barbara Fischkin

Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle
Children in Gaza who have autism enjoyed a day at the beach in July. Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour, The Palestine Chronicle

Our elder, adult son, Dan Mulvaney, has non-speaking autism. For the most part, Dan has a good life. He lives near us—his mother and father—in a lovely group home on Long Island in suburban New York and often surfs the Atlantic Ocean off Long Beach. During quiet moments when Dan is out at sea, waiting with his surf instructor for a great wave to bring him to shore, I watch from the beach.

Since October 7, I also worry about his compatriots in autism—younger and older—in Israel and in Gaza.

Dan may not speak but he does have his own way of communicating. He has given me permission to write about him here and to relate that he is well informed about world events. He is a devoted viewer of CNN, in particular.

Dan also knows that surfers call the big waves “bombs.” Once in a while a word or two springs from his mouth, sometimes a sentence. Recently, bobbing on his board at the “break” where the waves rise from the ocean in their final push to the shore, he told his instructor they should: “Wait for a bomb.”

There are no real bombs in Long Beach, New York. Before Dan was born I lived and worked in Belfast. I know about bombs.

Away from the beach, I search the Internet to find out more about how children and adults with autism are coping in Israel and Gaza, in this, our world’s latest and, currently, most brutal war. I remember the Belfast of the 1980s and the struggles of families trying to provide a bit of normalcy to their “normal” children. The seemingly normal adults I hear from and read about, on both sides of the Israel-Hamas war describe life as a bad ride on a bad rollercoaster.

There are people who have autism who have told me that on regular days, in regular times, they feel that rollercoaster inside their heads and their bodies.

One photograph that came up in a recent Internet search broke my heart. It showed Palestinian children on a beach, in water with waves. The headline; “A Day at the Beach for Gaza’s Autistic Children.”  This was taken in July, well before the intense escalation of the war that has simmered and exploded for years. All children, no matter on which side of the Gazan border they live, are the collateral damage. I cry for them all.

Mostly I focus on the ones who have autism.

In the 32 years since our son’s initial diagnosis, I have carried out extensive research on autism around the world, hoping against hope that perhaps someone, someplace is doing it better than here in the United States. I am hoping to make my son’s life easier. I have found some promising research from Israel but mostly I have found few answers. I have, though, developed a kinship with families in countries richer and poorer. Autism remains an international puzzle with many suggestions—including just to let it be—but few answers about the cause or a cure.

I have wondered about Gazan children with autism and have tried to track down what has happened to them. This is hard to do in war—and sadly it is not as if I can do anything to help beyond writing a column. As far as I can tell from afar, some Arab children do attend Israeli schools with special education programs. What I do not know is if restrictions have kept Gazan children away from these schools. Or not. According to the World Health Organization, a child is now being killed in Gaza every ten minutes and 67 percent of the 11,000 people killed in Gaza have been women and children. On Facebook I found Gazan schools for children with autism. The posts I saw were dated before Hamas invaded Israel. Except for one, now gone. That one asked Allah to save the children.

There was no deity in the vicinity to save Noya Dan, a 12-year-old Israel girl with autism, taken hostage by Hamas and murdered along with her grandmother. It seems there are other Israeli hostages with autism. But Noya’s name is the one that comes up on a search—perhaps one news organization fed on information from another. Or maybe these other hostages have not been killed. We can only hope. As for Noya, the reports vary. I don’t know which ones are true, which translations from the Hebrew are accurate. We know she was able to speak. It does sound as if  she needed round-the-clock care and medicines. It seems that she knew what was going on. She knew there were people in her grandmother’s house, where she was visiting. She described the sound of a huge boom and broken windows. Before she was killed, her mother is reported as saying: “The only thing I want and choose to imagine is that there are Arab women around her.” This is what I would hope, too. It is what I would expect. Borders don’t matter when you have a child with a disability. We parents stick together.

Meanwhile, from Israel come reports describing the vital services for the disabled that have been cut due to the war, as many agencies strive to keep things going.

Right now our son Dan is at his group home, a pretty house on a tree-lined suburban street. His housemates are three other disabled men. They each have their own nicely furnished bedrooms.They share a kitchen, dining room, two dens, a basement, two washing machines and dryers and a backyard where they barbeque. A joyful and resourceful house manager lives in an apartment in their house—with her own family and their pet dog. Staff work Dan’s part of the house 24 hours a day. The “guys,” as we call Dan and his housemates, need this kind of assistance. Dan volunteers on an organic farm, plays ice hockey, bowls and goes to dances and to restaurants and more. Still, often my husband and I fight to get him more funding.

But, now, as two wars rage—one in the Middle East, another in Ukraine—I realize more than ever that having the freedom to advocate for Dan is a luxury, one that could be taken away if these wars turn into World Wars. I used to joke that in a war our Dan would be the last man standing. Now I do not joke about this. I assess.

Dan is more than six feet tall and carries many pounds of muscle well. These days he is a gentle giant. But I would warn potential attackers not to mess with him or anyone around him. He is a loyal soul who would fight to the finish to protect friends, helpers and family. He can also forage for food as I have seen him do at the farm where he volnunteers—and even walking down the street past neighbors’ gardens. If he is hungry he will eat anything from wild onions to nearly ripe tomatoes. He has very few material needs. Ragged clothes would not bother him, although as his mother I insist he not wear them. He also seems to be able to sustain temperature extremes. In November he still surfs those high waves in cold Atlantic waters and loves it.

Then I remember that if Dan had to go into hiding, he might make the noises he makes when he is trying to speak and hasten the deaths of himself and others with him. My grandmother hid in an attic during an Eastern European pogrom in 1919 along with two of her three young children, admonishing them to be silent and not cry. They listened.

Dan might not be able to do so.

May the bombs he sees only be waves.

This content was originally published here.