War taking toll on North's autistic [pg. 7]

Ilanit Keret and her family might be considered lucky compared to many resident of the North. They managed to escape their Ma'alot apartment five days after the war started and ever since they have been hosted in the guest house on Kibbutz Afikim near Beit She'an. They have no immediate plans to leave and can stay there as long as they need. "We are very lucky, the kibbutz has been amazing. We can use the pool and they give us meals in the kibbutz dining room. It is very comfortable here," Keret told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Wednesday. However, for the Keret's son, 12-year-old Adir, who is autistic, the new surroundings and the sudden changes in his daily schedule have proved to be extremely unsettling. "It is not simple," said Keret. "Any change in his routine really interferes with on his behavior." Alut - The Israeli Society for Autistic Children, estimates that at least 300 families with autistic children have left their homes in the North and had their normally rigid daily schedules totally disrupted. Autism affects a person's ability to communicate, form relationships with others and respond appropriately to the surrounding environment. It can be managed fairly easily with appropriate therapy and a well-structured schedule. In Israel, most autistic children attend schools all year round and after they reach age 21 attend day programs or live in group homes that continue to help them develop skills most people take for granted. Changes to these routines can be very detrimental. While Alut and families such as Keret's acknowledge that sudden changes in environment can be harmful, they say the constant sirens and booms of rockets left families in the North with no choice. "We spent five days in the sealed room," said Keret, who also has daughters aged 14 and 7. "At first Adir refused to go in, but then he saw he had no choice. The loud noise really affected him. He does not speak but he put his hands over his ears to block out the noise, so I know he understands what is happening. After five days locked up in the house, we could not take it any more," she said. "An autistic child cannot be in a closed space like a bomb shelter, they need plenty of space," said Alut spokeswoman Ruth Sivan. "So far we have set up two hostels in the center of the country, arranged for many from the North to be hosted with families in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and have worked with the Education Ministry to have these children enrolled in schools further south." Many Alut employees from the North have also been relocated to provide services such as kindergarten care and occupational treatment to hundreds of Alut members, she said. "The first rocket to hit Karmiel was next to our occupational center there," said Sivan. Vered Nitzan Akon is the director of that vocational skills center, which helps adults with autism. She and her two young daughters have been living with family friends in Kfar Saba since the war began. Her husband is serving in Lebanon. "We understood [when the first rocket hit] that we would have to move further south," said Nitzan Akon. "We could not wait and see, like other people. The center in Karmiel does not have a sealed room and there is no way that the members could stay in a public bomb shelter. They cannot [stand] hearing sirens all the time, they have to be in a quiet, safe place." Nitzan Akon, her staff and the clients were immediately moved to another Alut center in Kfar Ofarim near Ramat Hasharon. "At first it was like a summer camp, but now many of the members are confused. Their families are spread all over the country and they really miss them," she said of the 27 Alut members now in her charge. The organization has set up a 24-hour hot line to counsel distressed parents of autistic children at (03) 670-9094. "They are not in their own rooms with their own things. It is very unsettling," said Nitzan Akon, who has worked with autistic individuals for more than nine years. "Their communication level has gone down. Some of them understand but they do not realize the complexity of the situation. One even said to me, 'Perhaps we can speak to Nasrallah and ask him to stop sending the rockets?'" Sivan said that most of the families associated with Alut in the North have been relocated but that there are still some families who do not know that Alut can help. The organization has set up a 24-hour emergency hotline to counsel distressed parents of autistic children at (03) 670-9094.