Dr. Mordehai Benhamou is an author, lecturer, professional guitarist, and Algerian Jew from Israel. His recently published Autism, Falafel, and Rock and Roll: A journey to an atypical world is a scientific memoir that explores his journey of self acceptance. He grew up in Paris and had a tumultuous journey of self-discovery that left him homeless before eventually accepting his diagnosis and moving to Israel to lecture about his life. This week he shared some of his journey and the inspiration for his new book.
I love that your book is written by an Autistic, edited by an Autistic, and translated by an Autistic. Can you comment on the value of this workforce in crafting your message?
First of all, I don’t think anyone other than an autistic is able to translate this book. The nuances go far beyond the language. My way of thinking, which is very autistic, must have been transcribed exactly, with the most relevant expressions of the English language. Moreover, research proves that communication between autistics is much better than communication between NTs. Personally, I find it easier to communicate with autistics. Additionally, autistics tend to be more goal-oriented, pay more attention to details, and don’t waste time on irrelevant things. So I wanted it to be translated and edited by autistics for these reasons. The other reason is that whenever possible, I prefer to hire autistics.
You’ve had quite a journey of self-discovery leading up to and following your autism diagnosis. What made you more accepting of your diagnosis the second time it was presented to you?
Indeed, it took a long time for me to accept not only my autism, but all of me. Algerian, French, Israeli, Jewish, Arab. It was a lot to deal with, and I thought I had to choose between these things. Obviously that way of thinking was wrong … The trigger for accepting myself and all the facets of my personality was a really tough crisis that I went through a few years ago. To face it, I had to choose between: blaming the whole world or taking my responsibilities. I chose the second. So I started psychotherapy and learned to accept myself as I am. And I made what I thought was weakness the center of my personality and even a strength.
What could the adults in your life have done differently for you that might have made you more willing to accept your diagnosis and develop a positive identity as someone on the spectrum?
My parents were horrible and violent. So any behavior could have been better. But I think that the fact that they did not cocoon me too much allowed me to develop adaptation skills and to mobilize the resources at my disposal.
But my parents are not the norm. Typical parents make other mistakes. Cocooning too much, or not telling the autistic that he is autistic as soon as possible, are common mistakes. The first prevents the autistic from developing his ability to adapt, the second leads the autistic to not accepting himself. How could he accept himself if his parents didn’t want to tell him that he is autistic?
Do you have advice for others on the spectrum who might be unwilling to accept their autism diagnosis?
You can’t expect to be loved and accepted by others if you don’t do it by yourself. Myself, I did not love myself and accept who I am. How dare I ask others to do it? Autism is not the flu; it doesn’t just go way. Autism is part of us, we have to face it and accept it. Personally, I cannot differentiate some of my personality traits from my autism.
What inspired you to write Autism, Falafel and Rock & Roll.: A journey to an atypical world? Who is the main audience?
Happiness inspired me. I felt whole and happy for the first time in my life and wanted everyone to know how to do it: self-acceptance. The second reason is my desire to increase autism awareness. I hear so many fake things or bullshit… “You don’t look autistic” or “your friend, the low-functioning one, he is retarded, isn’t he?” I wanted to help people understand us, so I invited them into my mind.
What do you enjoy about lecturing? What topics do you most often speak about (or are most passionate about speaking about)?
I love science, it’s my obsession, it’s a mediator for me to understand things, feelings, human kind. Science is beautiful, and I have noticed on social media that people find it difficult to express their opinion because they have no scientific background. The misunderstanding sometimes stems from a lack of credible information. People think science is difficult and not for them, so I try to ‘translate’ science to them in a simple way and solve their everyday problems through science. That’s what I like about conferences. But there is something else. When I give lectures, I don’t have to deal with communication skills: I speak, people listen. It’s pretty cool and easy for me (don’t think it’s narcissistic, communication difficulties lead me to that, not self-admiration).
Can you rate autism acceptance in Israel or in the specific communities you lecture? Are people on the spectrum understood, respected, accepted, and properly supported and accommodated for? Where is your community doing well in this area and where is it lacking?
I grew up in France and live in Israel (I won’t talk about Algeria) so I can compare these two countries. Israelis are open-minded and know what stigma is (as Jews, our history has taught us what it is). Tel Aviv, for example, is one of the largest gay capitals in the world. Israel is amazing. Side by side you will see an Orthodox Jew and a flashy gay. So there is acceptance, and when there is no acceptance, it comes from ignorance. We’ve had a bunch of TV shows (I’ve been on) about autism, and it helps people accept us. To prove my point, I can reveal that I was hired as a researcher at the Israeli National Center for Research on Autism. It’s a great proof of openness and willingness to understand and integrate us. The research in Israel on autism is really good, the diagnostic process too, but not always easily accessible. Israel was built on a socialist model, so we have social and health rights. But there is also a phenomenon of pseudo therapists who come to make money off the backs of autistic people and their families. This is possible because Israeli law doesn’t regulate enough of these kind of care services. So I created a structure to legally fight against these charlatans. Of course, we have a lot of work to do on awareness, rights, and support, but if you are autistic, it’s not bad for you to be in Israel.