The Key to Reaching Autistic Children
Jewish autism therapy is 4 years old; Noam Korenstein, who inspired its accidental invention, is 10 years old; and the author of both, age initially irrelevant, is typical of brilliant fathers everywhere.
Reuvein Korenstein, a native of Framingham, Mass., who now lives in Los Angeles, detected a need in Noam, his first-born son, who is autistic.
Plunging into a series of trials and errors in his graduate program at Yale, he invented a Jewish concept intended to grant relief to thousands of conflicted Jewish parents.
“I created Jewish autism therapy,” Korenstein says, “to respond to the needs of parents who feel they have to choose between autism therapy and Jewish education.”
After operating a clinic for autistic children in Hartford, Conn., he brought Jewish autism therapy, thick with a traditional religious vein, to Los Angeles last summer. Korenstein debuted his program for boys ages 5 to 12, one-on-one therapy, for a week or a month or more at a time, at Beit Aaron near Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. For four hours a day, five days a week, classes seasoned by Torah and talmudic stories bring an unprecedented Jewish flavor to autism therapy.
“Our rabbis teach us that this can be understood by us when we are going through our own tribulations.” — Reuvein Korenstein
Korenstein, 36, urges parents to try it for a week before judging.
“This program is Jewish and therapy,” he said of the pillars that frame his unique venture.
“We apply effective methods that are field tested,” he said.
While Korenstein designed his program at Yale, the spark that ignited what billowed into a blaze was purely accidental.
Or was it?
“I am a musician, and one day I started playing the piano,” he said.
Noam was in the next room.
“I started just to play music for myself. I just wanted to make myself happy. Sing Tehillim.
“All of a sudden as I began to play these Tehillim, actually even singing them in English without trying to get Noam to change at all or do any sort of therapy … Suddenly, Noam started, like, coming alive. He started talking more. He got really excited. He started playing with toys I never saw him play with.”
Six-year-old Noam came over to the piano, which shocked his father. “This is a big thing for children with autism — to initiate social interaction,” Korenstein said. “My son would play by himself with the water in the kitchen. Happy being isolated.”
The father of two believes he has gained precise insights.
“My hunch,” Korenstein said, was that isolation consoles “an inner sadness that goes like this:
“I am feeling deficient.
“I am feeling a lacking.
“Let me do something I can be good at.”
Again Korenstein thought back to the giant psychological steps Noam took toward him at the melodious piano. “It’s a big deal for a child to initiate,” he said, “to come out of that self-soothing world.”
Before that memorably happy moment, Reuvein and Leah Korenstein had trod the same exasperating, well-worn paths followed by many.
For the six years before the dramatic, life-changing, revelatory morning at the piano, Noam had been a pure loner.
“We had experimented with schools,” Korenstein said. “We went to every single type of therapist, speech therapist, physical therapist. We went to conferences.
“Noam was just not able to maintain … being in school.”
What were Leah and Reuvein Korenstein, intellectually kindred, thinking during these painful hours, weeks and years?
They had met in 2004 at the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine. They each were spending a year after college studying in Jerusalem. Their dual mission of the moment was to bring Passover to the Jews of Ukraine.
He credits his wife’s inherent belief with winging the couple and the family to safe ground.
“She said, ‘We just have to keep going. We have to keep trying. He is in there. Something is blocking him from being able to express it.’ ”
Did Korenstein see the sunshine ahead that illuminated his wife’s vision?
“I started to grow this optimism when I began to pay really close attention to his movements.
“My training, one of the things that HaShem blessed me with was attention to detail,” Korenstein said. “This is what one of my professors at Yale saw in me — really paying close attention to detail.
“I started to pay very close attention to Noam.
“At exactly 11 a.m. every day, I would sit down at the piano and begin to play these songs, as before, just for myself. Really singing. Just me and him. I was just letting it go. Special Tehillim.”
Korenstein said there are lessons in the life of King David for parents of autistic children.
He knows that King David was chased by his own son. “Our rabbis teach us that this can be understood by us when we are going through our own tribulations,” Korenstein said. “Even though it may seem despairing and bleak, there is still hope. Give hope to HaShem.’’
“In the end, [King David] turns around and says, ‘This is good. Don’t give up,’ ” said Korenstein, elevating his happy voice.
“When I read these words, I started to tear up. I thought he was talking about my life, my own struggles to help my son, my own desire that he would get better, that I could take him to synagogue with me.”
Korenstein’s passion was bursting forth again.
“Noam, he really felt that honest, speaking out loud to God. Really. He really felt that. It touched him,” Korenstein said.
“And so I realized that Jewish autism therapy really came out of this, which is this honest speaking of the soul of the person working with the child with autism, whether it is the parent, the teacher, the therapist, the rebbe.
“This person is engaged in the kind of activity [King David] was engaged in. Basically, it is about finding the good in a situation even though it seems bleak.”
Which happens to be Korenstein’s banner at Beit Aaron, bringing hope to those tempted to bury themselves in hopelessness.
Reuvein Korenstein can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.