Organization: Meir Autism Treatment Center
Mission: To assist families in helping their autistic children actualize their potential
Address: PO Box 90013, Ramat Beit Shemesh 99190
Tel: 077-405-0091; 054-940-1277
Web site: www.meirautism.orgChildren are a blessing, there is no doubt. But when a child is diagnosed with autism, it is a blessing for the family to find a way to communicate with the child and break through the barriers that keep him isolated in his own private world. The Meir Autism Treatment Center, based in Beit Shemesh, is dedicated to helping breach those barriers.Founded by New York-born Tali Field Berman in 2004, the center implements the methodology of the well-reputed Son-Rise Program. Berman took the four-year training program at the Autism Treatment Center of America in Sheffield, Massachusetts, and – with certification – was the first professional to bring the technique to Israel and offer it to families as a viable treatment option. Children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum may run the gamut from severe autism to Asperger syndrome and may exhibit such symptoms as minimal eye contact, social withdrawal, resistance to physical contact, delay in language development and engagement in exclusive repetitive play.According to the Center for Disease Control, autism is the fastest-growing developmental disorder in America, with one in every 150 children being on the spectrum. Berman adds that other countries report similar statistics.Although the cause of the disorder is still largely unknown – some children may be born with it, while others may develop it at age two or three – the method that Berman uses has proven to be effective in the families that she and her co-partner, native New Yorker Abby Rappaport, have worked with in Jerusalem and across the country.And families are the key, says Berman, 34, who is married and has three children. “Basically, we train parents to do a home-based program,” she explains. “We see them as an invaluable resource. We spend time training and equipping the parents to help the child with specific skills, such as developing language skills and making eye contact. And we help them with the everyday challenges of living with a child with autism, such as dealing with bedtime and bath time “ Such seemingly mundane activities can be daunting for autistic children, whose sensory systems are often impaired. They may be overly sensitive to such elements as sound or smell. Or they may be hyposensitive – that is, less responsive to stimuli, such as touch. Some may also have a problem when it comes to being flexible in behavior, such as spontaneously shifting from one activity to another. “This can make any daily activity very challenging,” says Berman.Such children characteristically engage in what Berman refers to as “repetitive self-stimulating behavior or play,” such as flapping their hands or lining up their toys in a specific row. “We believe they create these repetitive and self-stimulating behaviors, such as spinning the wheels of a toy car, as a way to organize their sensory system. It helps them create a sense of calm, control and predictability,” says Berman.To that end, “When we play with the child, rather than have him stop doing the ‘inappropriate’ behavior that seems to be calming him, we try to understand why he is doing it.”In this child-centered program, their approach is to enter the child’s world with him and join him in that activity. “If he’s spinning the wheels, I spin too,” says Berman. “I assist his need to take care of himself. I become controllable with him and create something in common. This builds a bridge to his world and encourages the child to want to be with me more and more. This interaction is our ultimate goal,” she asserts. “We try to discover what lights each child up and use it. We look at each child and believe that anything is possible, and we help him get as far as he can.” This positive attitude applies to their approach to the families as well. Berman and Rappaport help the child’s parents and siblings in any area they feel stress, fear or anxiety in order to help them feel as comfortable and as hopeful as possible. This will improve their quality of life, says Berman, and give them the energy to help the child.In looking for signs of improvement, there are four main areas of development that they track: eye contact; language and speech; interactive attention system; and flexibility. Since the program’s inception in Israel, Berman says she has seen children improve in all these aspects to varying degrees. “Some have grown to such an extent that they are integrated into a typical classroom situation, with some even diagnosed as no longer being on the autistic spectrum,” she remarks.Berman’s own inspiration to study the Son-Rise Program was sparked by a five-year-old autistic boy named Jeffrey. When she was studying for her sociology degree at Barnard College in New York, she started working with Jeffrey’s family, who was using the program at home and looking for helpers. “The way we worked with him was so respectful,” she says. “The program really honored the child, and I was inspired by the process.” She watched Jeffrey advance from making no eye contact to becoming a socially successful child.“Being able to witness that transformation changed my life,” she says. “And to see the parents with their enormous dedication and energy, I wanted to be a part of it.” Her insight into the realm of autism also came from Jeffrey. She asked him, in retrospect, what it was like to be autistic, and he replied, “It was a wiggly world. Things wiggled.” Theirs is a vague sensory world where things move in a way they don’t move for the rest of us, Berman explains. When asked if he would want to go back to being autistic, Jeffrey said, “Once was enough.”Although the Meir Autism Treatment Center does not provide its servicesfree, the support it receives from such foundations as the AmericanFriends of Meir and other donors enables the team to offer low fees andscholarships to keep the program as accessible as possible. “My job isto give the family the tools and skills to work within the program, andthen they can do it themselves. We see this to be not only the mostpowerful way to help a child but also the most cost effective,” saysBerman.To further help in that vein, Berman and Rappaport co-authored a book entitled Play to Grow! Over 200 games to help your special child develop fundamental social skills. In Hebrew and English, the book is available through Amazon. One can also visit their blog (www.playtogrow.org) to access the new games they post every week.