For this blog, I am going to do something a little different. Instead of sharing something based on my own experience, I want to share someone else’s experience. This person is Yosef (Joseph) from the Torah (Old Testament).
A short disclaimer. While many of these interpretations come from me, a lot also come from a fantastic book titled Was Yosef on the Spectrum? by Samuel Levine. I recommend that if you are more interested in this topic, you read it.
You may be wondering how this biblical character dated millennia ago could teach us about Autism. Yet, the Torah uses Yosef to teach an important lesson that many Torah scholars have not noticed: Yosef is Autistic, his actions are a reflection of his Autism, and his brothers teach him differently and this should remind us how we can include Autistic people.
Yosef is complicated. He connects well with his father and deals well with his animals but is also considered a “na’ar”, a term the Torah uses to describe someone who acts childishly. So what does he do? Torah commentator Rashi says that Yosef twirls his hair, clicks his heels, and plays with his eyes. These are actually all forms of stimming, repetitive action that an Autistic or neurodivergent person may do to relax, concentrate, or release energy. Many people find these actions childish, and like many at the time, Rashi seems to fall into this category.
The most telling sign of Yosef being Autistic is how he reacts in social situations. Autistics has trouble connecting with others, similar to Yosef with his brothers. His brothers spend time with each other and hang out with one another, similar to a social clique in a modern school. Yosef is notably excluded from this and is even treated hostilely. Why is this? Whenever Yosef has to interact with his siblings, he has to interpret a myriad of social cues and nonverbal messages. But Yosef appears to be underdeveloped in this skill. He does not seem to comprehend his brothers’ violent and dismissive tones when they interact, leading to him being surprised by their betrayal. A similar situation also plays out later in the narrative when Potifar’s wife begins to seduce Yosef; he does not understand what is occurring and it is too late until he realizes what she is attempting to do. Yosef is also unaware of what is socially appropriate to talk about. Yosef shares his dreams with his brothers in the hope that they will lead to a potential connection. However, like many Autistics, his actions are misinterpreted and he does not understand that his dreams actually come off as selfish and egotistical. All of these examples show clearly that Yosef’s social skills are underdeveloped and that he may be Autistic.
Over time, Yosef becomes more successful in society by developing strategies and skills. He is masking, a common Autistic practice that can be both helpful and be deeply harmful and damaging (see blog: Unmasking Autism). Many of the Autistic traits that Yosef showcased at the beginning of the narrative (social cues, stimming, lack of awareness) begin to be hidden. Yosef also uses his creativity, often an asset for Autistic people, and his unique interpretation skills, to help decode Pharaoh’s dreams. This catapults him to the position of the vizier, an administrative and largely mathematically based job where Yosef excels. This career path parallels many of the successes that other suspected or confirmed historical Autistic people have had: Albert Einstein in Mathematics and Big Ideas, Thomas Jefferson in government administration, Michelangelo in creativity, and Elon Musk in management and entrepreneurship. All of this goes to show that Autistics bring great things to the world. Where would we be without the Declaration of Independence, the theory of general relativity, David, and the recent rise in electric vehicles? Similar to these great Autistic people, Yosef used these skills in saving Egypt: using math to keep a record of grain, using administrative and managerial skills to manage such a gigantic effort, and using creativity to come up with such an ingenious idea.
Over time, Yosef likely had the time to reflect on the mistreatment he faced as a child and young adult due to his Autism. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he devises a scheme to punish them. But he does this in an interesting way. The brothers are tortured because this mysterious vizier misunderstands them. They feel that they are unable to explain themselves despite earnest attempts. This culminates with Yosef revealing himself. The brothers are taught empathy. They seem to really understand how their actions affected Yosef as an Autistic youth.
The Torah teaches here that Yosef and other neurodiverse individuals deserve to be treated with kindness and empathy. The Torah also reminds us that Neurodiverse and Autistic people have always existed. Social and disability differences are not isolated to Yosef in the Torah. Yosef’s grandfather, Yitzchak, is the most righteous out of all of the Avot and is blind. Meanwhile, Moshe suffers from Anxiety, specifically social anxiety and a fear of public speaking, and his efforts to confront his anxiety are a great character study and lesson for all of us. Whether you believe that the Torah really happened or is just a piece of literature, it’s message remains important. Let’s treat people with dignity and kavod (respect).