Working On a Dream

By Elena Epstein

Special needs - Matt & Navah

Navah Paskowitz and Matt Asner have blended their families and now call themselves “The Brady Bunch of Autism.” PHOTOS COURTESY NAVAH PASKOWITZ

Their cell phones are never quiet and seem to vibrate simultaneously. During a recent afternoon, their oldest daughter, Avivah, is trying to coordinate a ride on Lyft from her high school in west Los Angeles to their home in the San Fernando Valley. Matt Asner takes care of the logistics while his wife, Navah Paskowitz, answers a text from their son. They’re frazzled, but definitely in sync.

Asner and Paskowitz have been married less than two years and manage a blended family of six kids (in six different schools), three of whom are on the autism spectrum. Their marriage is about soul acceptance, the kind of love that transcends the difficulties of combining two special-needs families with children ranging in age from 7 to 18.

They have playfully dubbed themselves “the Brady Bunch of autism.”

“Matt was the first person to understand what I was going through,” says Paskowitz. “He had a similar struggle as a single dad trying to figure it out.”

“There were so many days and nights that I felt like I was drowning,” says Asner. “You feel so alone.”

When they met, they quickly realized they can’t be without each other.

The couple shares an easygoing rapport, finishing each other’s thoughts and expressing the belief that they are exactly where they are meant to be. They share a deep sense of duty and commitment to empowering other families, and their mutual affection seems fueled by an appreciation for everything they have been through, including their unconventional childhoods.

Asner’s father is Ed Asner, a television icon best known for his role as Lou Grant on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Paskowitz is the only daughter of the late Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, a legend in the surfing community and a Stanford-educated physician who left his practice to surf and travel the country in a camper with his wife and nine kids, eventually settling in San Diego and starting the Paskowitz Surf Camp.

special needs - Matt & Navah

The Asner-Paskowitz family – clockwise from top – Navah, Eddy, Jake, Willy, Matt, Wolf and Max.

Asner says the back lots of Radford Studios were his childhood playground and fondly recalls riding his skateboard on the set of “Gilligan’s Island.” But he wasn’t the “cool” kid. “I was awkward, a geek,” Asner says. He loved comic books, science fiction and Star Wars and was never coordinated enough to be good at sports. School was an ongoing challenge.

“I had a lot of learning disabilities and sensory issues,” says Asner. “I couldn’t write. I was flunking out of elementary school. My fourth-grade teacher told my parents that I would never make it through school. I needed to feel smart, but instead I felt rejected and discounted.”

His parents moved him from their local public school in the San Fernando Valley to a school in Santa Monica for kids with learning differences. With smaller classrooms and an individualized education plan, Asner thrived and graduated valedictorian, went on to college and had a successful 20-year career as a television and film producer.

He met Paskowitz through her brother, who was his neighbor. Asner and Paskowitz were both divorced parents, and autism was prevalent in both their lives. Asner’s second son, Will, is on the spectrum, as are two of Navah’s four children. Navah’s nephew and Asner’s half brother also have autism.

Asner gave up his producing career five years ago to become Executive Director of Southern California for Autism Speaks. The national nonprofit is dedicated to funding autism research and advocating for individuals with autism and their families. The community he found the first time he participated at the Autism Speaks Walk would redirect his life.

“Being a part of Autism Speaks is like nothing else I have done before,” says Asner. “It gives me energy. I feel good every day that I get up and go to work.”

Paskowitz, who has worked as a surf instructor and a model, found her calling working with families affected by autism. She has taught surfing to kids with special needs, conducted women’s spiritual support groups and is the founder of Family Balance Conferences. Paskowitz says that when she sees a family in pain, it ignites her heart. She’s been there – the middle-of-the-night gut-wrenching sobs, the severe meltdowns, anxiety and depression. She is quick to share her struggles, so families know they are not alone.

special needs - Matt & Navah

Navah, Matt, Will, Jake, Eddy (front), Wolf, Avivah and Max enjoy some family time.

“When my youngest son, Eddy, started school, he was in a general-education class,” says Paskowitz. “The first couple of weeks, I would watch the other kids in the class talking and interacting, and the differences between them and my son were so extreme. It broke my heart. I would come back to my car and cry.”

Asner knows that pain. When his 13-year-old son, Will, was first diagnosed, the doctor told him Will would most likely never graduate high school, get a job or be able to take care of himself. “I left the doctor’s office that day thinking, there is no hope,” says Asner.

They glance at each other and say together, “There is always hope.”

That’s what they give each other – the daily reminder to celebrate the small victories, to remember that, as Asner says, “Autism is a locked door with a million possible keys. Every day is a constant series of opening doors and having hope that one of these keys will let you in.”

Asner and Paskowitz each bring a unique set of strengths to their family. Paskowitz grew up with eight brothers and Asner calls her the “sergeant” of the house. She makes sure all the kids have picked out their outfits and preps everyone’s breakfasts and school lunches the night before. Asner was the one who convinced Paskowitz to let go of her fear of Eddy’s public meltdowns and resume doing the things she enjoyed, like having a simple dinner out.

“I wouldn’t take Eddy anywhere,” says Paskowitz. “But Matt forced me out of my comfort zone. It was really hard, but it was so much better for all of us.”

Blending families isn’t always easy. There was a lot fighting among the kids at first and everyone had to make adjustments, but they are working through it. “We have each other and we’re learning to communicate better every day,” says Paskowitz.

Asner and Paskowitz have a sense of shared destiny and an insatiable yearning to help, to bring about change. Like millions of parents of kids with special needs, they know what it’s like to be scared and angry. Being a part of Autism Speaks has been a uniquely fulfilling experience for Asner. Working directly with families, whether through surf therapy or her empowerment conference, has given Paskowitz an even greater understanding and appreciation for the plight of special-needs families.

The pressures of taking care of a child with special needs are immense. The biggest casualty is often the marriage, which crumbles under the around-the-clock care, hours of therapy sessions, sleep deprivation, social isolation and stress. Asner, who sang with a band for many years, goes back to his music when he needs to reboot. Paskowitz rides the waves for comfort and a sense of peace.

Out of their work in the community, their hectic schedules and their efforts to create a comfortable home for their blended family, figure out each other’s emotions and nurture their marriage surfaced an idea – a place for wellness.

Asner and Paskowitz are now working to launch the Ed Asner Enrichment Centers for Families, with the goal of bringing art, music and surf therapy programs and yoga, mindfulness and nutrition classes to special-needs families throughout the country. They’re on a mission to give families a place to recharge.

“You have to give yourself the tools and the ability to be a better parent,” says Paskowitz. “You have to nurture your mental and spiritual health. You have to allow yourself to ask for help. I was in complete despair until someone reached out to me – and suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.”

Elena Epstein is the Director of Content & Strategic Partnerships for L.A. Parent.

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