A communications class comes to Samaria

“Just before age three we put our daughter, who is autistic and nonverbal, on a bus to Hod Hasharon,” explained one parent who asked not to be identified.

KARNEI SHOMRON Mayor Yigal Lahav. / MALKA OSNAT SHIRAZI, head of Lapidim Primary School in Karnei Shomron. (photo credit: GAL HOJA)
KARNEI SHOMRON Mayor Yigal Lahav. / MALKA OSNAT SHIRAZI, head of Lapidim Primary School in Karnei Shomron.
(photo credit: GAL HOJA)
My twin boys always seemed quirky. They played mostly with each other and went from one obsession to the next – science, geology, cookbooks. They are timid around other children, uncomfortable in crowds and they cover their ears at certain sounds.
Three years ago, we made aliyah and we were enchanted with the rolling hills and blossoming town of Karnei Shomron. We registered the boys in kindergarten and began to acclimate slowly to life in the sleepy Shomron suburbs.
Although the boys picked up Hebrew quickly, their kindergarten teachers, experts at identifying behaviors that are outside the norm, felt that their quirks weren’t due to aliyah issues. They encouraged us to take both boys for testing. After endless psychological tests and umpteen trips to what we called “toy doctors,” both were classified with what was once called Asperger’s syndrome, and since 2013 has been found under the diagnostic umbrella of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is estimated that one of every 100 children in Israel is on the autistic spectrum. They were referred to a gan tikshoret (communications kindergarten), small classes replete with treatments, specialists and therapies integrated into daily curriculum to assist with social behavior.
There was no such option for tikshoret in our town. While there was a “small class” designated for children with learning and language disabilities, it was inappropriate for children with communication issues. Hence, the boys were bused out before 7 a.m., to a kindergarten in Elad, 31 km. away, and they came home again around 5 p.m. It was a very long day for kindergarteners.
I began talking to other parents of children with ASD in Karnei Shomron. They painted a bleak picture for services in the Shomron.
“Just before age three we put our daughter, who is autistic and nonverbal, on a bus to Hod Hasharon,” explained one parent who asked not to be identified. “For the first three months, her kindergarten was in the cubby section of a regular gan – the area where children stored their umbrellas and knapsacks. There wasn’t even a bathroom. A kindergarten that met our religious needs wasn’t even an option.”
While this girl is now in a school designated specifically for autistic children, she is still bused each day with spotty supervision and random cancellations in transportation.
“You feel like you have no say as to where your child goes,” recalled the parent. “You are lucky to get a placement so you take whatever they offer. There are so few spots available anywhere.”
THAT SENTIMENT was echoed by M. of Modi’in, who sends her high-functioning autistic son to a mainstream class with an aide (saya’at) in a state religious school. She would love to send her son to a tikshoret class, but the only ones in Modi’in are in schools that are not geared for religious students. While several of her friends opt to do just that, she does not want to compromise her religious values. She said the aide is untrained and unable to handle her son’s social issues, plus he gets no vital treatments like speech therapy in school.
“If you complain,” she confided, “they get offended. So I keep my mouth shut.”
Decisions are made each spring by a committee consisting of teachers, parents and psychologists to decide where to place the child the following year.
The educational choices for a child with autism include schools specifically for children with autism, usually with 80 spots in the entire school; and small communications classes in a regular school, where children have help, on-site treatments (speech/occupational therapy), acquire confidence and integrate into mainstream (shiluv) classes. The other option is full integration in a regular school with an aide and no in-school treatments. These aides are not trained to work with children with autism.
Special tikshoret schools and classes are sparsely scattered throughout the country. If there are none near the home of the child, the child is provided transportation by the school system with an escort. For me, first grade meant either “shipping out” my children to a special class, or mainstreaming them locally with an aide. While mainstreaming is the ultimate goal for most children, in large Israeli classes without specialized help, children with autism can get lost.
Shahar Bar Yehuda, educational director at Alut, an advocacy organization for the rights of children with autism, has become a sounding board for many parents like me.
“There has been an increase in the number of students diagnosed with ASD throughout Israel,” he points out. “Sadly, there is a lack of policy planning in the Ministry of Education that trickles down to local educational systems. This year, Alut is supporting 11 parent groups in the country, providing practical information, connecting parents and working to help them establish new educational options for their autistic children.”
Alut pointed that communications classes that help autistic children integrate into mainstream religious schools are few and far between (see table on the next page). They guided me to Gush Etzion, known for outstanding integration of children with disabilities. My husband and I spent a day per week traveling an hour and a half each way to meet with people, look at communities and get to know the school system there.
In one school, we audited a tikshoret class. It was impressive. Children were mainstreamed with regular classes for prayers, gym and art. The rest of the time they were given what the curriculum was in an eight-child class. We visited Reishit, an inclusion school in Alon Shvut where children with special needs were completely mainstreamed with neurotypical children. The school was masterful in its management of the milieu.
BUT ULTIMATELY we decided that moving would be hard on all of us – my children, my aging mother, and my husband who just received his credentials to practice as a pediatrician locally. We love Karnei Shomron. If the Gush could attract families of children with special needs, why couldn’t Karnei Shomron become a go-to place as well?
I told the local school authorities, in my halting Hebrew, that to me, it didn’t make sense to send children outside the community when the entire focus of a communications class is to help children socially integrate. The social system for Israeli youth is so vital. I didn’t want to ship my boys out of town anymore. Then I broached the subject of bringing a tikshoret class here – to Karnei Shomron. I was told that first we had to find other children and then we had to find a school willing to host such a class.
I joined Facebook groups, wormed my way into WhatsApp groups and I begged every mommy I knew to send out queries in Hebrew and in English to help find other parents of children with ASD in the Shomron who were also looking for a national religious first grade. We needed four to form a class. The class maximum is eight.
Within hours of releasing my phone number on social media, parents called me from all over the Shomron, and even from the far reaches of Binyamin, all with children designated ASD, some going to first grade, others a year or two away. As I fielded one call, another would come in. With a lot of help from my Hebrew-speaking mommies, we compiled lists of tikshoret-eligible children interested in staying local. The first week we had our four and the number kept growing. Now we had to find a school to agree to take us.
The first school turned the idea down flat. It was clear during our meeting that our children were not welcome there.
RUTH SPITZER, deputy head of council and head of the education committee in Karnei Shomron, championed our cause.
“We have an excellent educational system and amazing community,” Spitzer said. “However, there is a place for every child to be part of our educational system and community and to forge friendships with local children.”
C., a mom who was working to put together a national-religious tikshoret class for her high-functioning daughter in her city, Beit Shemesh, had been sending her daughter an hour each way to Jerusalem. After her social media campaign, she found enough girls to open two tikshoret classes and was honing in on a school for her daughter’s class.
“It is all about the mainstreaming component,” C. advised. “A school that takes on a tikshoret class must also function as an advocate so the funding and services being designated for children with ASD are used to include the children in every extracurricular activity, every party and every field trip. It is the difference between a great tikshoret program and a mediocre one.”
Yigal Lahav, the mayor of Karnei Shomron, has a niece with autism. He understood the need to keep our children nearby and to give them the education they needed and deserved. He assured us that we could make this happen and that he would stand behind us.
We approached the principal of the Lapidim School in Karnei Shomron, Malka Osnat Shirazi.
Even though it meant adding two new caravan classrooms to Lapidim, a school already bursting at the seams, Shirazi was enthusiastic about the notion of adding on.
“I believe it is so important to integrate children on the autistic spectrum within our school,” she assured me. “It is vital that these children, who often have difficulty communicating and forming friendships, remain in a familiar environment and interact with our warm community. Here they will receive full therapeutic and educational services. And I am certain having them here will enrich the lives of everyone in the school.”
With enough children to make it happen, and a school to accommodate us and Lahav’s and the community’s support, we recently received word that our first grade tikshoret class is really happening here in Karnei Shomron. As I write this, teachers are being trained by the Matya organization that monitors ASD children in the Shomron. And the icing on the cake, a brand new tikshoret kindergarten is also starting here in Neveh Menahem, to be managed by Ariel University educators. Small children no longer need to be schlepped.
 “Children with ASD should be educated near their homes, families and friends,” Lahav asserted as he showed me the memo confirming the programs. “They deserve that personal touch.”
And with a newly minted final stamp of approval from the Education Ministry, a special communications class is finally coming to Lapidim in Karnei Shomron. And, for other communities with very special children, “if you build it, they will come.”
For more information: Alut, (03) 670-3077
Horim L’ma’an Horim support groups for parents with special-needs children (in Samaria), 050-550-6962
How to start a tikshoret class in your neighborhood
•    Find at least four children with diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).
•    Ensure that the children receive the same placement from the placement committee.
•    Children should be more or less the same age.
•    Find a school principal who is pro-inclusion.
•    Make sure that the campus is large enough or can be expanded to include a classroom and therapy room.
•    Meet with your local authority special education director and regional supervisor (ministry) and present them with your list of children.
Tikshoret class statistics (shared by Alut)
Total number for students with ASD in Israel – 663
Haredi classes – 28        4%
National-religious classes – 79    12%
Arab classes – 18        3%
Secular classes – 538        81%