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Inclusion Saves Lives: In the Memory of Danny Klein Z”L

A few months ago, my synagogue, Orangetown Jewish Center (OJC). awarded me with the Danny Klein Kindness Award. The award was created by Danny’s family members who are members of the congregation. My rabbis explained to me that I received this award due to the acts of kindness I had spread throughout our community. As part of the award presentation I had dinner with the Klein family. Over dinner we talked about my interests, extracurricular activities and what Danny was like. I was surprised to hear the many similarities between Danny and I - we were both Autistic, Jewish and members of the same synagogue and USY. We both had a common love of knowledge and a basic understanding of the importance of kindness and generosity.

There was a key difference between us however, a decade of time and a lack of empathy from the world around him.

Before I continue though I want to add a quick note about terminology. Throughout the rest of this article I will be using the term Autistic. However, Danny was diagnosed with Aspbergers, in the early 2010s this was folded in with Autism into a new diagnosis: Autism Spectrum Disorder. We use this diagnosis today because it acknowledge the various needs and differences that Autistics have. But on the record, Danny was diagnosed with Aspergers and identified as an “Aspi”. Before the diagnoses changed I was also diagnosed with Aspergers.

Similar to my parents, Danny’s parents tried to support him the best they could. However, many schools, organizations and people were not prepared or well versed in the value of inclusion. In my high school, my school works hard to facilitate relationships between students. I was lucky enough to be able to develop close friendships with many kids in my grade. Unfortunately, Danny did not have this experience. Similar to many Autistic kids, he was socially excluded and isolated. His parents recall him being happy in supportive circles such as our synagogue’s USY chapter yet he struggled to cope with the pain of social isolation.

In middle school I felt the same way. Something that I bring up in almost every speaking engagement is a startling fact: I only had one friend until ninth grade. I have many more now, but it is depressing for me and many others to realize that I am very fortunate to be in my situation. Many Autistics struggle to expand beyond a few friendships, and some make no friends at all. While some of this is because Autistics have trouble with socialization, it is undeniable that neurotypicals also exclude Autistics. This can have tragic consequences.

One of the most common ways for depression to develop is in response to a traumatic event or experience. Social rejection is one of these traumatic experiences, and one that many Autistics face. To add to this, social isolation exacerbates depression and when one is socially isolated it is difficult to identify and help a person with depression. This dynamic has led to a crisis for Autistic people. Many Autistic people like Danny develop and struggle with mental illness. It is important to remember that Autism is not a mental illness, however, real life bullying or separate risk factors can lead to someone developing a mental illness. Danny tried very hard to stay afloat, and he never gave up on his core belief that kindness was crucial. However, the world wasn’t kind to him and in 2015, Danny committed suicide.

What I want everyone to take away is that Danny’s story is not rare and the need for Autism inclusion is real. Autistics are dying, Autistics are struggling and Autistics need help. Autistics are just as kind, intelligent, talented and worthy of purpose as neurotypicals. Just because they are different socially or developmentally does not mean that they deserve suffering.

I was lucky. I do have anxiety, some of which can be linked to the social isolation I faced being Autistic. In middle school, I was beginning to develop suicidal thoughts. My mother, therapist and others around me were quick to notice and give me support. I am glad it never spiraled out of control and was caught very early on. Today, my community and the kids around me accept me for who I am and help me as I confront my challenges. A lot of this has to do with the world we are living in today. Organizations are prioritizing inclusion like never before. Places that shunned Autistics before are now asking for inclusion advice. I received inclusion and kindness. Danny didn’t get that. Inclusion saves lives. I truly believe that if my life were altered slightly, if I was in a less inclusive environment, I would not be alive.

A short time after this dinner I was giving a presentation to the religious school at my synagogue about Autism. Like Danny experienced, I encountered a warm and inclusive audience to my message of kindness and treating your fellow man as you would treat yourself. During my presentations, I give participants an opportunity to develop and enhance their inclusion skills; they help come up with solutions and ideas of how they can include an imaginary student in a scenario based off of my own or other’s experiences. I don’t know why I picked the name Danny. I made the presentation before I even knew who Danny was. But I am a believer that everything happens for a reason. Despite it being unintentional, this character that I use to help develop skills of kindness will continue to keep the name Danny and I have decided to dedicate it to him.

My final message after a very emotional time pondering this. Don’t seek an award for kindness. What truly matters in the end is if you did something right, if you helped others. Follow Danny’s message: be kind.

On an additional note, I think it is always best to hear from an Autistic person directly. Fortunately, we still have a way to hear Danny’s experience firsthand. I invite you to hear from Danny by watching the video linked below. I noticed so many similarities between myself and Danny and was impressed by his kindness and optimism. I was particularly touched by his desire to be a psychologist, he wanted to give back to a community that helped him.

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