February 13, 2005

Students at Yad Hamoreh take care of their class pet. (Photo: Shmuel Bar-Am)When her twin daughters started first grade at Jerusalem’s Yad Hamoreh elementary school six and half years ago, Malka Cohen brought them to class – but didn’t drop them off.

In fact, until school ended for the summer she spent every morning in the hall, their little hands clasped tightly in her own, waiting for the teacher to appear. That’s because all three were petrified of a severely autistic little boy who wandered the halls shrieking like a banshee, and who often undressed and relieved himself on the floor. His name was Sapir.

Incredibly, if you peep into one of the classrooms at Yad Hamoreh today you will find Sapir quietly preparing his lessons or practicing with the school choir. And if you wander the corridors you will find it difficult – if not impossible – to distinguish between healthy youngsters and severely disabled autistic pupils, for the children mingle together as they run through halls that positively ring with laughter.

In 1998 Yad Hamoreh became the first conventional educational facility in the world to open its doors to severely disabled autistic children and to integrate them into day-long studies and activities with mainstream pupils.

While the first years were chaotic, today the school stands as the world’s pioneer in the field of school integration with low-level autistic pupils. The endeavor was initially an unmitigated disaster. In class, where they had been placed with healthy pupils, autistic youngsters would rock back and forth, beat their heads against the walls, pull their classmates’ hair, scream, and savagely bite both themselves and others.

Parents, children and teachers would routinely press their backs against the wall in order to avoid physical contact with the four autistic pupils who were the first to attend the school. “It was a no-win situation,” states Anna Goren, a special education expert who was eventually asked to try and make the integration work.

Allowed a completely free hand, and armed with private donations and funds provided by the government, Goren set about discovering how children with autism and mainstream pupils could benefit from attending the same school.

First she replaced most of the staff with dedicated educators, and hired a large group of extraordinarily committed therapists to begin working with the tiny autistic population – six pupils, at the time. The new team was beefed up by the presence of young religious women, spending a year of national service as volunteers at Yad Hamoreh.

With the help of individualized behavior modification programs, an enviable adult/child ratio, a bevy of volunteers, constant reinforcement of a strict behavioral code and daily contact with the healthy students, pupils with autism slowly began developing patterns of normative conduct.

Simultaneously, mainstream youngsters were profiting from the school’s tiny classes and a vast variety of special activities. In the process, they were acquiring a startling degree of tolerance and understanding. The staff were learning as well, and after a series of trials and errors realized that integration wasn’t a goal – but rather a means by which they could help the pupils’ progress and improve their quality of life at the same time.

Today, whenever possible, autistic pupils spend time in a regular classroom. When this isn’t feasible for a specific child, he will join mainstream students in sports, dance, and other non-academic pursuits. If neither alternative is appropriate, the autistic child still participates with his or her peers in parties, school trips, performances and ceremonies.

Early on, experienced music therapist Shmuel Ben-Dov suggested pairing autistic children with healthy pupils during his sessions. The project was so successful that it was expanded to include other therapies as well, from animal therapy and occupational therapy to the active recesses especially structured for the autistic pupils.

In some sessions, the children work one-on-one; at others times groups of autistic children welcome either a few healthy youngsters or an entire mainstream class into their midst.

“In these special mixed activities and therapies, and for the first time in their lives, pupils with autism are at an advantage. Familiar with the structure of the sessions and the games, instruments and apparatus involved, they suddenly become leaders – willing hosts who demonstrate the routine to the other students,” says Goren, who was later appointed principal of the school.

Ten-year-old Nathan finds it extraordinarily difficult to string words together. Last year Ben-Dov paired Nathan with a mainstream pupil, but it took some months before there was any meaningful interaction between the two.

Then one day, Nathan’s partner had difficulty with the English instructions on a musical computer program. Nathan, who was familiar with the program and whose parents are native New Yorkers, stunned both Ben-Dov and his partner with his ability to translate the instructions from English into Hebrew and demonstrate how the program worked.

Mainstream pupils studying at Yad Hamoreh have the opportunity for extras to which they wouldn’t otherwise have access, especially in an age of massive school cutbacks. At Yad Hamoreh, during the unusually long school day, they garden with their autistic peers, ride bikes together, cook and bake delicious food and enjoy musical adventures in Ben-Dov’s unique, super-sophisticated classroom. While bringing their own savvy to all of the lessons and activities, the healthy youngsters learn to respect and admire the knowledge and abilities of their autistic peers.

The interactions are positively awesome – as anyone who has watched the youngsters having a great time together can testify. “At the beginning we had to beg the healthy pupils to participate in mixed therapy sessions,” Goren told ISRAEL21c. “Today they are beating down the doors.”

Yad Hamoreh offers mainstream students the opportunity to internalize values like tolerance, patience and a whole-hearted acceptance of people who are different from themselves.

Thanks in part to generous donations from abroad, Yad Hamoreh remains unique, as the only school in the world in which severely disabled autistic children can be found at every grade level and in significant numbers – today 35 out of a total school body of 193 pupils.

One of the children’s parents is Tami Yona, Chairman of the Jerusalem branch of the National Association for Autistic Children (ALUT). Part of her job entails hosting visitors from the United States, Belgium and other countries who have heard about Yad Hamoreh’s integrative methods and are interested in applying them in their home countries.

“After watching the children together, visitors are generally overwhelmed at what they consider our courage,” she says. “We are considered very avant-garde for daring to teach severely dysfunctional autistic youngsters together with mainstream pupils.”

Yona added that the school’s success in Jerusalem has led to a unique phenomenon over the past couple of years: almost every autistic child in the city is now studying in an integrated framework.

Work has just begun on an extraordinary Yad Hamoreh project: a one-of-a-kind multi-sensory outdoor playground in which every structure will help autistic children focus, stimulate their use of language and improve their gross motor skills. The park will be so appealing, says music therapist Ben-Dov, that mainstream children will vie for the opportunity to join their autistic peers at play.

Last Independence Day, Sapir’s parents got a big surprise. Sapir, who in the past couldn?t attend any kind of ceremony without screaming, who wasn’t able to stand still for more than a second, who didn’t follow, or understand instructions – Sapir was given the honor of holding the Israeli flag, and did so with pride. Small potatoes to most of us, perhaps – but a red letter day for Sapir, his family and his school.

For further information on the school’s integrative activities and on the new playground, you can contact Ben-Dov at: shmuel@macam.ac.il

More on Culture

Fighting for Israel's truth

We cover what makes life in Israel so special — it's people. A non-profit organization, ISRAEL21c's team of journalists are committed to telling stories that humanize Israelis and show their positive impact on our world. You can bring these stories to life by making a donation of $6/month. 

Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

Read more: