By Logan C. Ritchie | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan Cohen is a typical 12-year-old: He listens to Maroon 5 on his iPhone, plays trumpet and runs cross country at the Epstein School. In his downtime, he plays video games and has an affinity for silly YouTube videos.
What’s not typical about Ryan is his compassion for longtime friend Jared Jay, who is living with an autism spectrum disorder.
Ryan and Jared were born two weeks apart in November 2002 and were bound to be friends because their fathers, Michael Cohen and Gregory Jay, were fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia and moved to Atlanta after college.
“We all had dreams of our boys growing up together, playing sports and building a friendship together,” said Lisa Cohen, Ryan’s mother.
When Jared was diagnosed with autism at age 2, the Cohens were shocked. “I remember where I was sitting when she told me. We couldn’t tell because we weren’t living with him, so we didn’t see the day to day,” Lisa said. “We let them know we were always there. We continued inviting them for dinner and birthday parties, but eventually it became too difficult for their family.”
Jared’s mother, Jan Jay, said: “We felt very supported by our friends. I hear a lot of parents say they lost friends. Our case was different. We were always invited over. Everyone was extra-supportive. In fact, it was hard to say no even when we knew it was going to be too hard to attend.”
As the years went on, Jared’s challenges became more pronounced. At 12, he cannot sit through services at Temple Sinai for more than a few minutes. His comprehension is unknown because Jared is nonverbal.
“Jared has no meaning for social situations,” Jan said. “He doesn’t know to say hello. That’s what autism is, a lack of intrinsic desire to be social. For Ryan to accept that in a person is an amazing thing.”
About a year ago, Jan and Lisa were surprised to discover that the boys were assigned the same weekend for their b’nai mitzvah in November 2015. Ryan, who attends Temple Beth Tikvah, had already decided to use autism awareness in his mitzvah project, and the Cohens and Jays quickly combined forces.
What started as Ryan writing a book about his friend has morphed into two creative endeavors:
- Ryan is the captain of Jared’s Jaywalkers, a team that is raising research money and participating in Walk Now for Autism Speaks on Sunday, April 26, at Atlantic Station. By press time, the team had raised more than $2,000.
- Riffing off Ryan’s book idea, Jan and Ryan are writing a Social Stories book to guide challenged children through the process of becoming b’nai mitzvah.
Social Stories, Jan said, are picture books for developmentally challenged kids. Some children with autism respond better visually than aurally. The book will be made for Jared and children like him to explain each step of the bar or bat mitzvah day.
“It will walk him through each part: You go into the synagogue. You stand on the bimah. The rabbi will hold his hands up to bless you. You will wear a tallit. Each step is demonstrated by a picture,” she said.
When the Social Story is completed, the Jays and Cohens will distribute the books to Atlanta-area synagogues for children with learning challenges.
“It warms my heart,” Jan said. “This phenomenal family has instilled something in Ryan to make him want to do this. It is hard enough for adults, but for a 12-year-old to give back is incredible.”
“He has not grown and developed the way I did, so it is hard for us to hang out together,” Ryan wrote on his donation page for the Autism Speaks walk. “He can’t communicate with me very well so we can’t talk about stuff like I do with my other friends. But Jared is still my good friend.”
When Ryan stands on the bimah this fall, he plans to talk about his Torah portion, his mitzvah project and his friend Jared.
What: Georgia Walk Now for Autism Speaks
Where: Atlantic Station, 240 20th St., Midtown
When: Sunday, April 26; registration at 8 a.m., opening ceremonies at 9:15, walk at 9:30
To donate to Jared’s Jaywalkers: bit.ly/1G6UAdI