Eitan Everybody Can: Helping autistic Israelis master basic life skills - opinion

Eitan Everybody Can does not target the billionaires and groundbreaking scientists of Israel; it helps socially challenged trainees master the basic skills of life.

 EITAN RUN. (photo credit: ODED KARNI)
(photo credit: ODED KARNI)

In the middle of the gloom, the doom, and the endless balagan, suddenly there is Hodel, splashing light in all directions. Hodel Yeheskel (his name means “thank the Lord”) is one of those gorgeous, generous, gob-smackingly good Israelis that simply inspire awe. 

Israel is 75 and this is my 75th column. It’s time to focus for a few blessed minutes, on the good. And it doesn’t get better than this.

The journey, however, did not begin well. Wounded in his final top-secret army mission 10 years ago, Yeheskel needed to change his future plans. 

“I’d lost the sight in one eye,” he says, matter of factly, “and my face was scarred; it didn’t seem as if I could continue with the army career of my dreams.” 

During rehabilitation, he volunteered with a friend at a home for young adults with special needs, where he worked with five low-functioning autistic youngsters who were not verbal at all. Yeheskel cooked with them, played music, did TRX workouts, and “fell in love.” 

 HODEL YEHESKEL (L) and Yanai Banyan, founders. (credit: Yosef Huri)
HODEL YEHESKEL (L) and Yanai Banyan, founders. (credit: Yosef Huri)

In one of those “this should be a Netflix movie” stories, that volunteering stint blossomed into Eitan Everybody Can (EEC) which is changing lives and spreading joy throughout Israel and possibly soon further afield. Eitan is Hebrew for “strong” and “steadfast,” the organization today has 120 trainers in 50 cities around the country, working with 600 autistic trainees with cognitive disabilities. 

Helping Israel's autistic youth

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder usually diagnosed at around 18 months of age. Symptoms include the inability to communicate or interact properly with others and behaving in a repetitive, restricted manner. 

People with ASD might not look you in the eye, do not understand social cues, may have difficulty making friends, and can flip and straighten an object for hours on end. Little changes can cause great pain; people on the spectrum prefer an inflexible routine – taking the same route each day, eating the same food, saying an unchanging hello or goodbye.

Yeheskel’s trainee Yuval, for example, is obsessed with The Lion King. When he met other people, particularly those he didn’t like, he’d curl his fingers into fearsome paws, screw up his mouth, and roar.

“Slowly we worked on only snarling when the person was 2 meters away,” says Yeheskel. “Then a meter. Now we are trying to delete the roaring altogether.” 

Yeheskel and Yaniv Banyan, his partner since the volunteering stint, have developed a method of integrating sport as a therapy tool with communication and life skills. Each trainer tailors a personal program for individual needs. Trainees run half marathons, do cross-fit and martial arts, and work out with Givati, Duvdevan and Egoz army units – eventually often volunteering for military service.

“They have different but special abilities,” explains Yeheskel, “and are very skilled at doing repetitive actions. They fix helmets for pilots, for example, and are extremely effective in their work.”

Autism affects almost 2% of the population; lower-functioning individuals can run away, bite others, not speak; on the higher end of the scale the symptoms are barely noticeable. Highly functioning people with autism are often highly successful, despite possible struggles with social cues. Being on the spectrum can come with extreme perks: The ability to focus obsessively on one thing sometimes leads to stunning results. 

Google “famous people with autism” and the list is astonishing: speculation includes Bill Gates, Charles Darwin, Michelangelo and Isaac Newton. Not everyone who is deeply focused and not fantastically friendly is on the spectrum, obviously, but with one out of every 68 individuals statistically affected, the chances are not negligible that it hits at least some well-known personalities. 

Eitan Everybody Can does not target the billionaires and groundbreaking scientists of Israel; it helps socially challenged trainees master the basic skills of life: traveling on a bus, using a credit card, not being aggressive.

“Our trainees and trainers become a family,” Yeheskel says, “plus we have a wonderful influence on relationships within nuclear families. Our aim is always to maximize potential.”

Sometimes siblings of those who are on the spectrum would like to share their own experiences – but don’t know anyone else in their position. EEC runs a siblings training session once a year, at which brothers and sisters bond with each other and with new friends. It’s astonishing stuff.

And it’s mind-blowing what a difference less than a decade makes: Today EEC brings its holistic, professional training methods to the Wingate Institute, where they train sports professionals to work with people with special abilities. All EEC trainers are certified sports trainers; most have additional backgrounds in education or special needs. Some of the trainees graduate to become paid trainers themselves; Ori, for example, a long-time young adult working with Yeheskel, is happily teaching martial arts to Holocaust survivors. 

Dr. Yiftach Gepner of Tel Aviv University is currently researching how the methodology of EEC can help people with autism through a holistic approach. 

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar of Reichman University, the Harvard-trained “happiness guru,” is examining whether physical training impacts on the happiness, cognition, physical abilities, and general wellbeing of individuals on the autism spectrum, and on their families. 

The organization also organizes a race every April 2, on World Autism Awareness Day; this year 3,000 runners with- and without- disabilities, participated with the help of partners such as More Investment House Ltd., Nike, Porsche, Maccabi World Union, and various funds. 

Yeheskel, recently married and successfully recovered from his own trauma, overflows with well-being as he recounts the future plans of Eitan Everybody Can. To make sure that “everyone” really “can” he wants government recognition and certification for the methodology of EEC and a home, for example in Yarkon Park, where people can eat together, train together, and fly. 

Contacts are underway with federations and Jewish and non-Jewish organizations abroad to spread the methodology (already recognized by the Clalit Health Fund) to people with special abilities wherever they live. 

Donald G. Triplett was the first case of diagnosed autism in Mississippi in 1943; he died recently, aged 89. Awareness of the condition has skyrocketed since his diagnosis; Israel has 22,000 people recognized as on the spectrum. There are many more, according to Yeheskel – in some haredi and Arab communities such challenges are often not discussed. 

EEC hopes to reach everyone, and for this it needs funding. A full 60% of the budget comes from fees (NIS 370 a month for weekly, small, group sessions; NIS 100-200 shekel per individual session) and there are scholarships available for those who can’t pay. Donations make up the shortfall but with a NIS 5 million budget that is growing by 25% each year, more money is always needed. 

To find out more, and to thank the Lord for creating people such as Hodel, please visit: www.everybodycan.co.il/en/ 

The writer lectures at Reichman University.