When 2 year-old Gilad was first enrolled in Ezer Mizion’s “Ma’on Shaked” Rehabilitative Day Care Center for Autistic Children, he couldn’t tolerate anyone sitting next to him. When anyone came near him, he would lash out in all directions, screaming and hitting. “In the best case-scenario, he would ignore other people,” says Smadar Wolfgur, the Center’s staff psychologist. “In the worst case, he would be annoyed by them.”
Today, the blue-eyed blond-haired child is very much part of the group. “Whenever he sees me, he motions me to caress him,” says Wolfgur. This seemingly miraculous transformation of a child who once would have been relegated to the “hopeless” category is a striking testament to the success of the experimental program, which was initiated just one year ago, in response to an urgent request by the Ministries of Social Services and Health.
Ezer Mizion’s Rehabilitative Day Dare Center, located in the Yaakov Fried Building in Bnei Brak, serves one-and-a-half to three year-old children with autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD). It operates five days a week from 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM, as well as Friday mornings.
The tots in the program enjoy a warm, personal, and loving relationship with the dedicated professional staff that also includes a kindergarten teacher, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and developmental aides – with a ratio of 2 staff members for every child.
“These children are a riddle to their parents,” notes Wolfgur. “Most of them don’t speak, don’t communicate through gestures. Often the parents feel responsible for their condition. But today we know that autism is a developmental, neurological problem, and not psychological. Yet it is possible to help such children. However, massive treatment by the age of six, when the brain is still flexible, is critical.”
The Center’s staff maps each child’s needs and builds an individual treatment program for him or her. The Center’s major goal is to encourage each child to interact with other people and to develop communication skills, which will significantly improve quality of life for the child and his family. Some of the children can eventually be mainstreamed into a regular educational framework with the help of a mentor. Thus the therapist may hold a favorite toy next to her eye to force the child to make eye contact with her. Or, if he’s playing with a car, she will sit down on the floor and start playing with him. “The child would prefer to be with himself,” explains Wolfgur. “The therapist ‘interprets’ the child’s play as an invitation to connect. Thus she invites herself into his game and his world, all the while expressing pleasure and enthusiasm, in an attempt to compete with the objects for his attention.”
The Center, which began in 2006 with four children, currently has nine children and plans to expand. The group framework encourages social interaction and promotes communication and social skills in the children. Eight of the youngsters have registered major improvement.