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Getting help to get along

This article was originally posted in the Jerusalem Post on  October 4, 2014.  JPost

It’s difficult enough for any freshman to get used to the formalities, studies and social life at university or college; it is much more of a challenge for students with autism.

The country’s youngest university – Ariel University in Samaria – was sensitive enough even before it received official state approval of its university status to set up a special program to assist students with pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), the most prevalent of which are autism and Asperger syndrome.

Operated by its student services center under the auspices of the department of communication disorders, it began in 2008 with two students and has expanded to 30. It remains the only program of its kind within an Israeli university that helps the autistic members of the student body to live with mentors in the dormitories, study with tutors and gain meaningful employment.

The mentors/dorm mates provide ongoing social support and informal teaching of daily skills for independence. Students also get help preparing for their exams and adjusting to the new learning conditions that exist in an university environment. Skills workshops teach students to function independently, offering lessons on life skills and relationships.

Social support includes experiential and enrichment activities such as birthday parties and other events that take place during the academic year.

As it is very personalized, the program has a significant impact on the students, nearly all of whom would not be able to consider attending university without this support.

The university also makes contact with placement agencies that deal with specific populations to help the graduates take advantage of their degrees and find their place in the workforce.

There are some autistic students in other universities, but they lack special supportive programs.

“The initiative for autistic students was set up by Ariel’s Dr. Dorit Ortal, who had a granddaughter with autism,” recalled the head of student services who supervises the program, Elinor Einat (Shai Gilboa is coordinator).

“She received a contribution from the Rishon Lezion Municipality and the local Amit School. Sadly, Dorit died of cancer a few years ago.”

Einat, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science and then a master’s degree in public policy, arrived at what was then Ariel College 13 years ago and set up a section for social involvement to help students with various physical and mental disabilities, such as the wheelchair bound, the blind and the deaf. Currently, Ariel’s 200 disabled students are assisted by a team of 80 people, including psychologists, educators, social workers and special education teachers.

Six years ago, there were two students in a communications class who needed additional help, so the college president and management agreed to launch a special program for them under the supervision of dean of students.

“The first two [men] to be included in the program were accepted to a preparation course for college, with mentors accompanying their first steps in academic life around the clock,” Einat continued. “As they were autistic, they did not do military service, so they came at the age of 18 and exhibited a lot of promise. Then they joined as freshmen, one majoring in physics and the other in chemistry and biotechnology. Today, one is finishing his thesis for a master’s degree in quantum physics, while the other went to Bar-Ilan University for an advanced degree in theoretical mathematics but is still in touch with the Ariel group. We already have a graduate working in computer programming in a large company,” Einat said with pride.

The program has received strong backing from Prof. Yehuda Danon, a senior pediatrician who was the founding director of Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva and is now president of Ariel University. While the program is partly government funded (financial needs such as tuition, dorms and monthly disability are covered by the National Insurance Institute), a large amount of financial support comes directly from the university budget. The university says it recognizes the importance of the program and is committed to its success and growth.

The students are not limited in terms of what courses are available to them. Interestingly, many students in the program elect to study communications, Einat said. For admission to the program, applicants must meet the academic requirements for the degree of choice. In addition, an interview is conducted both with the potential students and their family to assess their suitability for the program. While the level of disability varies among students in the program, all must show promise of being able to able to integrate into university life with the assistance offered.

As the students are suddenly living away at home and their parents, they have to be shown how to buy food at the supermarket and how to clean their dorm rooms.

“Although they are all along the autistic spectrum,” noted Einat, “they are all different, so each one received a program specially suited to him. Only some of them take psychometric exams. Some need psychological help, as they come with a lack of self-confidence, that we build up. They also need more time because many have a slower pace of studying. Their studies are divided up into three semester a year rather than two.”

The organizers give talks on PDD to those university lecturers who aren’t well familiar with the condition. Surprisingly, not one of the academic staff who teach autistic students has claimed he or she is “too busy.” All, said Einat, are ready to help.

AUTISM is a neural development disorder whose symptoms usually appear around the age of two. Those who are affected have impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted and repetitive behavior. Autism affects information processing in the brain by changing the way nerve cells and their synapses connect and organize, but how this occurs is not well understood.

The other most common syndrome is Asperger syndrome, which is considered to be on the “high functioning” end of the spectrum. Affected children and adults have difficulty with social interactions and exhibit a restricted range of interests and/or repetitive behaviors. Motor development may be delayed, leading to clumsiness or uncoordinated motor movements. According to experts, those with Asperger syndrome do not have significant delays or difficulties in language or cognitive development. Some even demonstrate precocious vocabulary – often in a highly specialized field of interest.

Children with high-functioning Asperger suffer from more intense and frequent loneliness compared to non-autistic peers, despite the common belief that children with autism prefer to be alone. Making and maintaining friendships often proves to be difficult for those with autism.

RAZ ROBAS, who has Asperger syndrome, is beginning her third and final year as part of the special Ariel University program.

“I was born in Nes Ziona to a mother who uses Chinese medicine techniques and a father who is a musician,” she says. Raz, who will be 21 this month, has two big sisters, aged 32 and 29, and two step-siblings. Her parents divorced when she was 10, but her continued to provide much emotional support.

“I went to a regular kindergarten in Holon with eight or nine kids. Then I went to an elementary school that had a special communications class,” she recalled during an interview with The Jerusalem Post. “I didn’t realize that I was very different and didn’t pay attention to any problems. But one day, I saw a form for a summer day camp, and it said PDD on it as a diagnosis. When I look back, I remember that it didn’t surprise me. I started to ask questions at age 10, as I am a very curious type.”

She is sure her classmates talked about her behind her back.

“I always felt I was kind of transparent – not in a bad way, but I felt I was alone in the room. I played piano, and it gave me comfort, but I decided not to study music.”

Her teachers, she recalled, always helped her a lot, but she is especially grateful to Galit, a psychologist who lives in Tel Aviv and who has assisted her since she was in kindergarten.

She went to the Amit School in Rishon Lezion and excelled in mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer sciences.

“I am very good in my studies, but I didn’t like pressure and had difficulty accepting others’ authority. I have very high standards, and I am a perfectionist.”

Despite her syndrome, she managed to earn full matriculation.

The fact that Raz has always been “crazy about reading books” helped her. When she learned about her syndrome, she began to read everything she could get her hands on and access through the Internet.

“I saw almost every film and video about it. I watched the TV drama Yellow Peppers, about a family with an autistic boy, but I never forgave Alma Zack, the actress who played his mother, because she always denied his condition.”

She recalls having a doll she named Avner that she used for a while to “represent” her.

“He spoke instead of me. He even ‘blew out’ the candles on my birthday cake. But gradually, I got over it,” Raz remembered. “I am still afraid of fireworks, but I have ways to cope with it. Sometimes I say things at an inappropriate time.”

She remembers reading a newspaper article about a young man named Ofir Flum who also has PDD and went to Ariel University (then still a college) straight from high school, because he wasn’t accepted for service in the Israel Defense Forces.

“I thought going to university wouldn’t be good for me, because there would be a lot of rules to observe,” Raz said. “But I was impressed by his example, and I was accepted at Ariel at 19. There was no other college or university that offered such a structured program to help me. I’m a very responsible type.”

Her dorm roommate, Tzofia, “is older than me and studies industrial and management engineering. She is wonderful and patient.

I can get help from tutors, but I don’t need much of it. It was a bit hard for me in my biochemistry lab, because I’m rather clumsy with my hands. After that help, I did better.”

When Raz graduates, she is considering doing a master’s degree in brain sciences.

“I had thought of being a teacher, but that would be too difficult for me because a teacher has so much responsibility. I would like to stay in academia and do research. I want to learn how the brain works, why everyone’s is different and, of course, why some people have PDD.”

She had to learn how to speak on the phone properly.

“With time, I learned to speak fluently, but sometimes I forget and speak only about myself. My social life is very good, but I still need to improve.”

Raz has a “serious boyfriend named Uzi. He is 26 and graduating now. He also has Asperger. We have been talking for some time about marriage, partly as a joke and partly as the real future. I teach him to overcome things, and he teaches me.”

Her mother Dina, who listened to the interview, said she regarded Raz as her “life project.

I am very proud of her,” she declared.