After my son, Jonah, was born, our family – Jonah, my wife, Cynthia, and I – became a self-sufficient little island. We were busy; we were also besotted with each other. Our motto, if we’d had one, could have been lifted straight from the classic swashbuckling novel, The Three Musketeers. That’s right: “One for all and all for one.” And while we were lucky enough to have lots of support and help in Jonah’s first few years from immediate family – Cynthia’s parents and my sisters, in particular – we were, for the most part, on our own and liked it that way. Then, just before Jonah turned four, he was diagnosed with autism and our little island was transformed, practically overnight, into a complicated and crowded place, a place we would soon realize we could no longer manage on our own.
Any parent of a child with autism knows the feeling: suddenly, you’re at the mercy of a growing list of so-called experts – psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, educators, speech therapists, occupational therapists, you name it. There are also books to read, organizations to join, bloggers to follow. All of this to say that the notion that it takes a village to raise a child isn’t always as reassuring as it sounds. Eventually, though, you grow used to it. You are now a part of the autism village. Eventually, you also come to appreciate, often treasure, those individuals in your child’s life who are making things easier for him and, by extension, you. Mike Picciuto is such a person. We met him last year when he became the assistant teacher in the class Jonah attended at Summit, a special needs school in Montreal. Actually, before we met him, we’d already heard a lot about him, from Jonah, who talked about this “Mike-fellow” practically non-stop. Parents of children with special needs learn to be pretty good judges of those rare people who can connect with their kids and it was obvious, from the start, that Mike and Jonah were a good fit. We also got lucky since Mike had just the kind of skill-set we were looking for, in addition to patience, kindness and firmness, he’s a pretty good musician and, with him, we found the guitar teacher for Jonah we had been having some trouble finding. The two play together one hour a week, but Jonah is constantly calling Mike on the phone for his practice instructions. In fact, the calls are probably a little too constant, but Mike has yet to complain.
We also found, in Mike, a shadow who could attend sleep-away camp with Jonah. Cynthia and I were understandably nervous when we took Jonah to the bus last summer to send him off for what would be his first real, extended time away from home and I doubt we could have done it if it weren’t for the fact that Mike was going too. It’s probably important to add, here, that sending a shadow to a sleep-away camp with your child can be prohibitively expensive. You have to pay his salary as well as the camp tuition.* Indeed, it is one of those areas where help from “the autism village” might also come in handy. Cost notwithstanding, though, Mike made it possible for Jonah to have a great time at the Camp B’nai Brith near our home in Montreal. And when Cynthia and I picked Mike and Jonah up after the week was over, it was also clear Mike had a great time, too. He was quickly accepted into the camp’s structure and activities and, to hear him tell it, he learned an awful lot – especially about being Jewish.
A Canadian-Italian and a Catholic, Mike admitted to me he wasn’t sure what to expect from a Jewish summer camp, but, in the end, he added, it turned out to be “one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve ever had outside my comfort zone.” He had a crash course in Jewish traditions and rituals, everything from the Wailing Wall – “I’d never even heard of it before” – to Shabbat dinner. “There was a rabbi at CBB who I asked an awful lot of questions. He never hesitated to answer me. I learned something new every day,” Mike told me. “And that one Friday night, the Shabbat dinner, I spent at CBB with Jonah was a real education for me. It was a reminder of how important it is to hold onto your heritage. And not just by saying you have to do this or that, but by explaining all the rituals and all the reasons for doing them. I also liked how much Jonah enjoyed that evening. We sang a lot on that night and I was glad I could be there to help him be a really important part of the Jewish camp experience.”
*Please note, each camp has their own policies and this may not be true for every camp.