A crucial connection

Each year, the Alut association releases a special Haggada showcasing the inspiring drawings of Israel’s autistic children and adults.

Autism Haggada 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
Autism Haggada 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Alut)
While for many, Pessah symbolizes a time to celebrate our exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery, for some others still searching for their freedom, it has a much simpler meaning. For them, it’s a time when the world can share in their hidden talents, a time when they themselves can connect, even fleetingly, with the Jewish community and with Jewish culture.
Each year, Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, releases a special Pessah Haggada showcasing the beautiful and inspiring drawings of autistic children and adults. This year, thanks to the contributions of the Shemer and Horowitz families, the songs of Naomi Shemer will be added to the colorful Haggada.
Says Einat Kassuto-Sheffi, CEO of Alut: “During Pessah, when we talk about our freedom, we will pray that the time will come for the freedom of autistic children and their families, that we will be able to solve the riddle of autism.
“Until then, the only way for these children to be free is through therapeutic programs, and integration and acceptance in the community.”
Edna Mishori, the retired principal of Yachdav, a school for autistic children, and mother of 44- year-old Dror, explains that creating the Haggada “symbolizes one of our main efforts. Even though these ‘friends’ – as we call them – are disconnected from day-to-day life, they are still part of the Jewish and Israeli community, and Jewish holidays are something it is important to be a part of.”
Dror is one of 34 gifted autistic children and adults who drew the vibrant and animated drawings featured in the Haggada.
“When I was principal, we really incorporated the Jewish holidays in school, learning about the prayers and about the holidays; so it is normal that a person with autism can internalize this. He or she sees it all around, and so it’s only natural to connect with it,” says Mishori. “It is Dror’s way to express his place in our society.”
Dror, like many autistic children and adults, has difficulty in communicating.
“His language is limited,” says Mishori. “He can say what he wants, but there is no spontaneous interaction with him. The flow of two people talking simply doesn’t exist. However, there is always the feeling that there is a lot more to him.”
In fact, Dror is gifted in both music and art; he plays the piano, draws, and works with his hands.
However, tapping into this potential and releasing these gifts took a lot of hard work and dedicated efforts.
“The process of drawing takes years of preparation – just sitting at the table and learning to focus, learning patience, this is a process that took years and years. We’ve worked with Dror since he was a child, and step by step, his talents surfaced,” Mishori says.
Alut has played a major role in assisting in the development of Dror’s talents, and the talents of countless others with autism.
In Israel alone, over 5,000 individuals have been diagnosed with autism and between 150 to 250 infants are diagnosed every year.
Autism is a lifelong neuro-developmental disorder usually diagnosed during the first three years of a child’s life. It impacts the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction and communication skills, affecting a person’s ability to communicate and form relationships.
Today, autism is considered a spectrum disorder, or ASD, ranging from children functioning on a minimal level, with severe communication and social problems, to children and adults functioning at a very high level, some of whom are able to study at university.
There are currently no therapeutic cures for autism, although early behavioral intervention can dramatically improve a child’s development.
Unfortunately, until several years ago, the only treatment available to autistic children and adults was admission into psychiatric hospitals.
“Once there was no awareness. Nobody knew what autism was; even among professionals, it was a field nobody really knew anything about – in the world, not just in Israel. It is a field that has significantly improved in the past decades,” says Mishori.
In response to the lack of treatment and awareness, Alut was established in 1974 by parents of autistic children to better serve the needs of their children and their families.
In addition to the Haggada, Alut has several programs providing educational, residential, and vocational assistance from the time a child is diagnosed with autism and throughout his or her life.
Alut runs and organizes nursery schools, called Alutafim, for toddlers newly diagnosed with autism, family centers, summer and holiday camps for autistic children, occupational centers, and residential living or “homes for life.”
“In 1977, we set up Yachdav, the first school for autistic children, and in 1988 we built the first community for autistic adults, Kfar Ofarim, that was not part of a psychiatric hospital,” recalls Mishori. “Until that time, there had been no structure autistic adults could live in, in a way that today is obvious – that is, within the community, with professional guidance.”
To date, Alut, in cooperation with the government, has built and operates 16 additional “homes for life.”
Unfortunately, these homes are extremely costly to build, costing between $2.5 million and $3m., not to mention the maintenance costs.
“The law mandating special education ceases to apply at age 21, and then there is a real problem,” Mishori points out. “There is no law that the government needs to provide for autistic adults. Each home for life is very expensive, and parents can’t afford it.”
Mishori says she is very worried about the future.
“Just look at the numbers: Once four to five autistic children were diagnosed out of every 10,000; today it is one out of every 150, and there is no framework in place. Alut, which is a parents’ organization, can’t solve the problem on its own.”
So what does the Haggada project mean to Dror and his friends? As with everything, it is a process.
“At first he didn’t really care. He could draw, but he didn’t care what was done with his drawings.
From when he was very young, we would frame his pictures and give them a lot of importance, and slowly he learned that his drawings could have a place in the community – as presents, in a calendar, etc.
“He sees that it is his name, his drawings, and that it is a Pessah Haggada. [It has become] very important to him.”
In addition to the Haggada, the friends also create handmade Seder plates and beautiful arts and crafts throughout the year for all the Jewish holidays.
To purchase the special Pessah Haggada, contact Shula at Shulam@alut.org.il or Hila at Hilai@alut.org.il or visit the website at www.alut.org.il