ROMAN J ISRAEL, ESQ *Movie Review*


“Roman J Israel, Esq.” isn’t quite as the trailers suggest.  It’s a redemption story of sorts as Roman (Denzel Washington) transforms from idealistic advocate into someone who is out for himself.

Colin Farrell also stars.

For more about “Roman J Israel, Esq.”, including some significant product placement, take a look below:

 

–>Keep in touch with the author on Twitter and Instagram @realZoeHewitt.  Looking for the direct link to the video?  Click here.

All film photos are courtesy of Sony Pictures.

Lieberman calls two-state supporters ‘autistic’


Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister, called supporters of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict “autistic.”

Lieberman, who heads the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, made his remarks Thursday in an interview with Israel Radio.

“Anyone who thinks going back to the 1967 lines will solve the conflict is autistic,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman, who declined to join the new government coalition after serving in the previous coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, accused the prime minister of waffling on the two-state issue – now saying he supports it after indicating during the election that it was no longer in the offing.

Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, called on Lieberman to apologize for using the term autistic as an insult directed at Netanyahu.

“Millions of people around the world and thousands of people in Israel are autistic. By using the word ‘autistic’ as an insult, MK Lieberman has deeply hurt the autism community,” said Ruderman, whose foundation is dedicated to strengthening the relationship between Israelis and American Jews, and to the inclusion of people with disabilities in the broader society. “The term for a disability should never be used in a crude and derogatory manner.

“If Mr. Lieberman had an autistic child, how would he like it if his child heard a highly visible public figure like himself use autism as cudgel against an adversary?”

Also Thursday, Lieberman said Netanyahu should cancel a scheduled meeting with the head of the Joint Arab List party. The Arab-Israeli party, headed by Ayman Odeh and made up of the major Arab-Israeli parties, is the third largest in the Knesset with 13 seats.

Netanyahu went ahead with the meeting, however. He and Odeh discussed the socio-economic advancement of Israel’s Arab citizens, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, and Netanyahu reminded Odeh of the many investments that his governments has made in the Arab sector over the past six years. The prime minister added that it was necessary to continue reducing the gaps in Israeli society.

Odeh in a statement following the meeting said he took the prime minister to task for his Election Day warning that Arab voters were flocking to the polls.

Lieberman in pushing Netanyahu to cancel the meeting said Odeh “represents a list of terror supporters in the Israeli parliament.”

Media Enrichment Academy: Seeing potential


Students at the Media Enrichment Academy in Sherman Oaks often arrive with a variety of labels: Autistic. Isolated. Troublemaker.

By the time Eli Katz was finished with the extracurricular program, however, the 20-year-old, who was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, had added a new one: Game designer.

“I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.

Four years ago, Katz began attending the academy, which teaches kids between the ages of 8 and 18 to use technology and imagery to express themselves and communicate with the world. Since then, he co-created a game that teaches preschoolers about musical instruments and has done work for a couple of film studios.

This is just what founder Amit Bernstein of Encino envisioned five years ago when he started the program, which operates out of a brightly lit storefront space on Ventura Boulevard. Inside, posters and artwork hang above rows of Apple iMacs, and Bernstein tells inspiring success stories about some of the nearly 200 students he’s worked with since opening a business that specializes in working with children who have mild to moderate learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“We’ve had some kids who are nonverbal, isolated, maybe had behavior problems,” he says, remembering a boy who transformed from “the terror of the school” into a talented, award-winning graphic artist. 

One student, Noah Schneider, won third prize in a museum’s Holocaust film contest as well as many other film festival awards. Another, Ezra Fields-Meyer, Bernstein says, “couldn’t sit still for five minutes” when he arrived, and he went on to create many videos. One of them was turned into the children’s book “E-mergency!” with author and illustrator Tim Lichtenheld.

“Kids that society ignores, we see the potential,” Bernstein says. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, but if you find a way to expose the strengths, then you can open doors and develop abilities that are lifelong.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) teacher should know. As a boy growing up in northern Israel, Bernstein struggled with a learning disability that was eventually diagnosed as dyslexia. He was unable to read or write until he got help from a speech teacher when he was in fourth grade. 

At age 15, the jolt of moving with his parents and two brothers to Los Angeles, where they had relatives, didn’t help. Not only did he have to contend with the challenge of learning English, but his classmates at Beverly Hills High School — where he struggled to graduate with a C average — laughed at his Israeli sandals. Fortunately, he says, “There was a large Jewish and Israeli community there, and we hung together.” 

Then Bernstein discovered what a difference technology could make. He enrolled at Santa Monica College, where the new Microsoft Word application changed his life. 

“My biggest issue was communicating in writing,” he says. “What it did, it helped me — with the spellcheck, with the ability to organize — all of that enabled me to improve writing.” That year, he says, all of his grades were A’s. 

Still, Bernstein, whose grandparents survived the Holocaust, felt a responsibility to return to Israel to serve in the army. He saw combat in Lebanon and Gaza, and “had friends die in my arms — things you shouldn’t deal with at that age. It reminds you when things are tough that if you went through this, you can live through anything,” he says. 

Missing his family, Bernstein returned to Los Angeles after his three-year military service, re-enrolled in community college, then transferred to California State University, Northridge, where he received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in special education. While there, he created an interactive computer model of a brain that was used by his professor to teach a “Brain and Behavior” class. This experience showed him the possibilities of the computer as an effective learning tool.

“We can be able in one way and disabled in another way,” Bernstein says. “What I found out about myself is that I could do things on the computer with relative ease, but I couldn’t do other things that might be easy for other people, like writing.”

This success with computers in the classroom was one of the inspirations for Bernstein to start Media Enrichment Academy. The idea behind it is to identify these strengths and develop them. It just so happens that, in his experience, many young people with special needs have qualities that lend themselves to multimedia work.

“My feeling is that many autistic kids learn about the world visually. They’re trying to piece together facts, and a lot of the time they do it visually,” Bernstein says, adding, “They can hyperfocus. … They’re very detail-oriented.”

Students come away from the experience with improved self-esteem as well as an increased interest and aptitude for learning, he says. 

At LAUSD — he’s taught at Mulholland Middle School, Portola Middle School and now Vista Middle School in Van Nuys — Bernstein has used multimedia approaches to help students improve their reading comprehension. In conjunction with a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism program, his students worked on a project called “I Poem,” mixing images, sounds and text about themselves in one-minute shorts.

“That year we created seven projects, each more difficult and complex,” Bernstein says. “At the end of the year, my students were invited to show their movies at USC, and when we tested them, their reading comprehension was way up.”

Three years ago, Bernstein started a nonprofit called Exceptional Minds for young adults on the spectrum who need special vocational training post-high school.

“For individuals who are more disabled — individuals that cannot wing it until people learn what great artists they are or what great individuals they are — the idea is that putting them in a typical work environment is setting them up for failure,” he says. 

Bernstein founded Exceptional Minds to create a studio where these individuals could thrive, be productive and learn valuable work skills in a supportive environment.  

“The idea was to develop a studio of artists that are disabled that are not judged on their disability but on the work that they can produce,” he says.  

Although he’s no longer involved with Exceptional Minds, Bernstein continues to work full time as a teacher while operating Media Enrichment Academy. 

“Media Enrichment Academy started with a vision. The idea was to have something fun and motivating to teach skills that maybe one day would turn into something more,” he says. “I never imagined it would be what it is right now, and I couldn’t be more proud of what we have accomplished in the last five years.”

Transcendence: Jacob Artson’s eloquence and spirit defy his severe autism diagnosis


Jacob Artson needs a break. He’s expended a huge effort keeping his movements and tics under control for the past 45 minutes, and he’s ready to release some energy.

As I talk about Jacob’s journey through severe autism with his parents, Rabbi Brad and Elana Artson, Jacob takes a noisy stomp around the house, upstairs and down, banging, singing, letting out some guttural vocals.

It’s hard to reconcile this outward behavior with the lucidity of the ideas he’s been sharing with me.

“You hear so much from autism organizations about what a horrible disease this is and how the parents have been robbed of their children, yada, yada, yada, and I suppose on a certain level that is true,” Jacob told me, typing the words on a special keyboard that allows him to fully express his ideas. “But I refuse to live the rest of my life believing I am a defective human being. I have gifts and talents and challenges just like everyone else, and I have the same desire for connection and a need to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Words like these coming from an autistic boy are moving and stunning on their own, but when Jacob comes back from his break, he astonishes again: First he smothers his mother and father in hugs and kisses and then offers commentary on the things they’ve been saying while he was gone.

Jacob can hear through walls.

In fact, Jacob Artson, who just turned 16, has spent his life facing down walls — working through them, over them, around them, or sitting right on top of them with his feet dangling over the edge.

Jacob is considered severely autistic — it takes great effort for him to regulate his movement and his behavior, and he has very little spontaneous, relevant speech.

At the same time, he is intelligent, optimistic, spiritual, witty and more emotionally attuned than most people.

He conveys his thoughts through a method called “facilitated communication,” which means Elana, or another facilitator, holds a hard plastic card the size of a take-out menu with the standard QWERTY keyboard printed on it. As we talk, Elana supports Jacob’s wrist and helps keep him focused and calm. She reads aloud as his finger skims over the board.

In this High Holy Day season of cheshbon hanefesh — accounting of the soul —Jacob puts into stark relief the notion that the outer self is not always a reflection of the inner. His reality challenges us: Do we judge people by what we see? Do negative myths become self-fulfilling prophecies, or do we summon all our resources to shatter those myths, as Jacob and his family do every day? Do we define ourselves by our limitations, or do we forgive our own shortcomings? And are we capable, like Jacob, of transcending obstacles? Of listening through walls?

ALTTEXT
The family visited the White House during the “Opening the Gates of Torah” conference in Washington, D.C., December 2007

Etta Israel Campers Learn Skills for Life


Mark Worland — six-foot-something, dressed in tight black and skinhead bald — grabs Navid by the arm.

“Come with me!” he barks.

“No!” screams Navid, barely 5-feet tall.

Navid throws himself on his back, locks the bottom of his feet to Worland’s knees, and shields his face and head from Worland’s flailing fists.

“Great job,” says Worland, a self-defense specialist, shaking Navid’s hand and helping him up, as Navid’s friends applaud.

This self-defense class is part of a repertoire of life skills that Navid and his peers are learning at Independent Living Skills, a summer program for developmentally disabled adults run by Etta Israel Center, a mid-Wilshire nonprofit for people with special needs.

Piloted last year, the program now has 15 participants, ages 18 to 29, who are developing life skills in a Jewish atmosphere while also having the kind of fun summer is all about — sports, trips and counselors who keep the energy level and the warmth at a joyous high.

On this Monday morning, counselors are dressed in muumuus and leis as part of today’s Hawaiian theme. They blast music while campers twirl hula-hoops around their arms, necks and hips.

For the hula-hoop contest and smoothie making that followed, the disabled young adults joined with kids from Camp Avraham Moshe, Etta Israel’s program for 10- to 18-year-olds with Down syndrome, autism and other developmental disabilities. Both programs meet at the YULA boys’ school on Pico Boulevard.

The living-skills training is a natural outgrowth of Camp Avraham Moshe, which has been around for seven years.

“We saw the older campers getting bored. They needed more learning, more focused activities,” said Dovid Levine, a college student and long-time Etta Israel volunteer who helped establish and now directs the program for young adults.

The camper-to-counselor ratio at Avraham Moshe is one to one, and at the adult camp one counselor is responsible for two or three. The counselors are paid a nominal stipend.

During the five-week, 8 a.m.-to-3:30 p.m. program, participants learn skills and responsibility from activities such as the camp car wash, taping and producing their own film, and reorganizing the warehouse at a food bank. They also help out with the younger kids and with set-up and cleanup. And this summer they held a charity garage sale, and collected recyclables from receptacles they placed in neighborhood homes.

Some of the adults work during the year, in packaging, food service and janitorial jobs, for instance. Some are in day programs, and others spend their days at home watching television.

Their life-skills classes — nutrition, hygiene, safety — and daily social interactions are practice for real life. Trips for rock climbing and horseback riding, accomplished with whatever modifications are necessary, give them a sense of independence, while daily prayers, blessings before and after meals and Jewish music create an unmistakably Jewish experience.

A highly detailed intake process pinpoints specific skills campers want to work on. This summer, one child at Camp Avraham Moshe mastered buttoning his shirt, giving him the independence to dress himself.

One adult with autism hadn’t been out of his house for two years, but on a recent day volunteered to be a punching bag for Worland’s self-defense demonstration.

After the class, Navid, 25, is eager to talk about his summer experience. It’s “the best! A dream come true!” he said.

Navid is a regular at Etta Israel events, including weekend retreats at different synagogues, Sunday school classes and monthly social events. Etta Israel also runs two group homes in Valley Village, self-contained special-needs classes and inclusion programs at day schools, teacher training and a support and outreach program for the Iranian community. All of the programs are designed with the goal of being welcoming to all Jews — from the unaffiliated to the ultra-Orthodox.

Camp costs $300 a week, a sum that is covered by parents, government funding and scholarships. Donations make up the difference between what is charged and the actual costs, which is closer to $440 a week per person.

Menachem Litenatsky, director of youth and volunteer services at Etta Israel, hopes the summer programs lead to something bigger.

“It’s a huge blight on the Los Angeles Jewish community that we don’t have a special-needs day school,” he says.

Elana Artson, whose son Jacob, 12, attends Camp Avraham Moshe — and a public school during the year — appreciates the benefit of an excellent education and a plethora of Jewish activities outside of school. She says Etta Israel gives him a consistent community and a circle of friends that a patchwork of Jewish activities couldn’t.

Jacob himself, who is autistic and communicates primarily through typing, is thrilled with the camp.

“I love being with people who love Judaism as much as I do,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I also enjoy camp because I can’t do most of the things that other 12-year-old boys do independently, but at camp I have an opportunity to do all the things regular kids do.”

For information on the Etta Israel Center, visit www.etta.org or call (323) 965-8711.

 

Torah Lover Beats Odds


Joey Schwartzman has a passion for clocks. He is also crazy about street addresses, dates and numbers of any kind. And he has one more enthusiasm not often seen in 15-year-old boys: he loves reading Torah and Haftorah at his synagogue, Westchester’s B’nai Tikvah Congregation.

What makes this truly remarkable is the fact that Joey has been diagnosed as autistic. A few years back, he was likely to disrupt services, or fall asleep on a couch outside the sanctuary. But he was fortunate to be part of a warm-hearted community that has known his family for three generations. As his bar mitzvah approached, a congregant with a background in psychological counseling devised a special Hebrew school curriculum for him and another boy with autism.

Joey’s parents also shared with him their own areas of expertise. Jeff Schwartzman, a math teacher who for 15 years has been one of the congregation’s chief Torah readers, taught his son the intricate system of musical tropes that allows him to read accurately from the Torah scrolls. His mother, Chellie Schwartzman, tutored him in chanting the section of the service drawn from the writings of the prophets.

Autism is a wide-ranging disorder affecting social and communication skills. But higher-functioning autistic youngsters can have special talents too. Joey is blessed with a keen memory, as well as impressive musical gifts. He has perfect pitch, and upon hearing a noise — like the ding of an elevator bell — can correctly identify its pitch. All this has helped him master the prayer service, leading him to become a mainstay of B’nai Tikvah’s Shabbat and High Holy Day celebrations.

On mornings when Jeff Schwartzman serves as Torah reader, Joey often assists in the role of gabbai (prompter). Both father and son feel proud when Joey catches his dad in small errors. Says mother Chellie, "When he’s up there he just knows what to do, and he’s very mature. At school, it’s hard for him to be successful. So we’ve found a place where he can be successful."

Now that brother Ben is moving toward his own bar mitzvah, Joey has been coaching him for his big day. Ben, 12, considers this a nice turnabout, because he often instructs Joey in commonplace matters like how to throw a football and play computer games. Ben credits his brother with promoting the family’s connection to the synagogue: "Sometimes when we don’t feel like going, he’s urging us to go."

Four years ago, when Rabbi Michael Beals arrived at B’nai Tikvah, he didn’t know what to make of Joey. During services, Joey tended to imitate his words and gestures, leading the rabbi to assume the boy was making fun of him. He expressed his displeasure to the Schwartzmans, who explained, "This is not disrespect. He likes you. He wants to be like you." They also gave him a book on autism.

Now Beals is one of Joey’s biggest fans. He praises Joey’s progress: "In his evolution, I feel I’ve evolved too. So he’s helped me with my education," Beals says. "It’s not simply that Beals has learned about autism. Joey’s example has taught him to be careful of his own rash assumptions. "Those with handicaps have much to teach us of how we look at things, that things aren’t always what they appear to be. One should never count people out."

Beyond the Wall


It is a bright, sunny day at Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services. In her office, medical director Dr. Susan Schmidt-Lackner is sitting on the floor with one of her young patients — not an easy feat for a tall woman in a long skirt, but the doctor is more interested in the little boy than in her own comfort. The child’s mother, seated nearby, recounts her concerns, such as how her son can’t tolerate the texture of most foods and is subsisting on a diet of McDonald’s Happy Meals.

"What do you like about McDonald’s, John?" the doctor asks, moving closer to the boy. She repeats the question until John answers, giving her a fleeting moment of eye contact.

Like most of the children Schmidt-Lackner sees, John (not his real name) is autistic and finds social interaction difficult. His mother tells a reporter that John used to spend much of his time in destructive behavior against others and against himself — biting his own arms, for example. Since being treated by Schmidt-Lackner, who put John on a combination of the medications Prozac and Risperdal, John’s behavior has improved, and he has started communicating with his family, even playing games with his little sister.

"We noticed the difference right away," his mother said.

Another parent of a patient calls Schmidt-Lackner "our miracle worker. She gives it to you straight, but she also gives you hope."

Dr. Schmidt-Lackner, 45, is one of the growing number of doctors and therapists treating children with autism spectrum disorders. In addition to her work at Vista Del Mar, she is an assistant clinical professor at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, serves on the board of directors of the Autism Society of Los Angeles and will be a presenter at their April 28-29 conference in Pasadena. A California native, Schmidt-Lackner lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their four children. She lectures frequently at conferences on the use of medication in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders and is considered one of the most respected authorities on the subject in the nation.

Autism is a hot topic right now. During the past year, the neurological disorder, which involves a variety of symptoms, including a delay in speaking and an inability to connect socially with others, has been covered in everything from Newsweek to "The Montel Willams Show." The high profile is due mainly to the frightening rise in diagnoses of the mysterious disorder. Schmidt-Lackner notes that when she began working with childhood disorders at UCLA in the late 1980s, the incidence of autism was about seven cases per 10,000 children in the general population; now it is estimated at 20 per 10,000, or 1 in 500 — and more children are diagnosed every day.

In an interview this month (which is also national Autism Awareness Month), Schmidt-Lackner answered some frequently asked questions about autism and her work with autistic children.

JJ: We’ve all heard about the rising number of children being diagnosed with autism. Do you think it is because of the change in the definition of who fits on the autism spectrum, or because there are more children being born with this disorder?

SSL: I think it’s a combination of both. We have a better understanding of autism, and the actual incidence has also increased. Autism is no longer a rare disorder; it is now more common than Down Syndrome, more common than childhood cancers. Everyone knows someone who has a child with autism, so that proves it for me.

JJ: Have you noticed an increase in the number of Jewish children being referred to you?

SSL: I see kids from every walk of life and an increase (in diagnoses) across all ethnic and socioeconomic lines. I don’t see this as being a Jewish problem, like Tay-Sachs.

JJ: What are the recent medical breakthroughs that may help children and adults with autism?

SSL: There is a lot of new research. We’re gathering interesting data and facts, but that hasn’t translated into a lot of effective new treatments for our kids. The atypical anti-psychotics are being used all of the time; some of my kids are even on anti-Alzheimer’s medications, but treatment is still very symptom-oriented. We know autism is linked to the serotonin-transport gene, but in general we are not treating the core of the disorder. Also, it’s important to make sure our kids are getting good support, like behavioral programs. At Julia Ann Singer [Vista Del Mar’s school for children with developmental disabilities and emotional disturbances], what’s great about our school is, we encourage parents to spend one day a week in the classroom, which is very different from the public school model. We also have a support group that meets weekly.

JJ: One of the problems facing many parents of autistic children is the cost of the myriad therapies and evaluations their children need. Seeing someone of your caliber can cost anywhere from $500 to more than $1,000 per visit. Why so much?

SSL: Those prices are usual for a first-time evaluation, not a follow-up, and Regional Center [a state agency] can sometimes fund the visit. But you’re 100 percent right: people who have better economic means get better services. I do a lot of pro bono work because I think it’s deplorable, the lack of services for people who are not as sophisticated about the system.

JJ: What is the prognosis for most children with autism?

SSL: Probably 25 percent of the kids do really well, take off and are able to function independently. The majority of kids are going to need assistance throughout their lives.

JJ: What elements of being Jewish do you find help you the most in your work?

SSL: To me, if I didn’t have this framework [of Judaism], it would be so hard. My parents — that is, my clients — are my heroes. To have a kid with developmental disabilities and be able to live that, day in and day out, you have to be extraordinary. I’m an observant Jew, and the more I do [in this field], the more I realize there’s a very spiritual connection to this work. There’s a spiritual side to these children, and I feel privileged to see these very pure souls.

JJ: What can the Jewish community do to better support families of children and adults with autism?

SSL: Our spiritual leaders need to reach out to people with developmental disabilities. Instead of excluding these kids, we have to include them. The Bureau of Jewish Education has been talking about special ed forever, and Etta Israel is doing a great job, but people need to reach out more. These families need so much support. The divorce rate is so high, between 70 and 90 percent, in families where a child has autism. Families slide downhill so terribly, in a way they would not have if they did not have a child with developmental disabilities. The parents who do the best are the ones who can accept their child’s disability and still see the beauty of that child. It is the responsibility of the Jewish community to pull these families in, to help them push for their child’s potential, but also help them to accept their limitations.

For more information on programs at Vista Del Mar, call (310) 836-1223. For more information on the Autism Society of Los Angeles’ conference, “A Journey to Solutions 2001,” call (818) 953-3855.

Autism: The New Epidemic


Barbara and Sheldon Helfing never
expected to have one autistic child, much
less two. Their son Leland, now 5, was born
prematurely and began showing signs of a
neurological disorder before reaching his
1st birthday.

“Leland had very poor balance and he
wasn’t yet responding to us with words or
gestures,” Barbara said. “But initially autism
did not come up because he was clearly
interested in his surroundings and in other
people.”

Leland began getting help through the
state’s Early Intervention Program. However,
since the state agency did not require a
diagnosis prior to providing services, the
Helfings had no idea that their son’s
problem might be genetic. When Nathan
was born, the Helfings rejoiced in their
healthy new son, but by the time he was 18
months old, the heartbroken parents could
no longer hide from the fact that their
younger son had also fallen prey to the
disorder.

The Helfings are part of a growing trend that
is affecting the Jewish community in
unprecedented numbers. The statistics
most often quoted in past reports about
autism state that autism spectrum disorders
occur in four to five in every 10,000 births.
However, according to the Autism Society
of Los Angeles, a soon-to-be-released
report on children in the state of California
shows a 400 percent increase between
1986 and 1996 — or one in every 500 births.

In terms of the Jewish community, a study
being performed at Stanford University’s
School of Medicine is looking into how
families of Ashkenazi origin are affected
(see box). Researchers stress that so far
there is no indication that Ashkenazi Jews
have more of a tendency toward autism than
the general population. However,
professionals who work with autistic children
say the overall increase in cases has had a
definite impact on Jewish families.

“While I would not say the Jewish community
is any more hard hit than other communities,
we are certainly seeing plenty of Jewish
families with this problem,” said Dr. John
Lutzker, chair of the department of
Psychology and director of graduate training
at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
“I have contact with the (state-run) Regional
Centers and with the school districts and
they cannot put a lid on this. It is indeed an
epidemic.”

Dr. Sandra Kaler, a psychologist
associated with the Neuropsychiatric Unit at
UCLA, agrees.

“The Jewish community has been equally
struck by this and I think there was an
assumption we would not be,” Kaler said.
“Now when I go out to a Jewish preschool to
do an evaluation, I frequently see one or two
children with autism, where before it was
very rare to see more than one.”

Autism is a neurological disorder that
typically appears during the first three years
of life and includes disabilities or delays in
the areas of social skills, communication
and cognitive development. Children can
either be born with the disorder or develop
normally and then regress, usually between
the ages of 18 and 24 months. It occurs four
times more often in boys than in girls (one
reason why scientists suspect a genetic
link). About 70 percent of children with the
disorder also show some degree of mental
retardation. Autism is considered a lifelong
disability, but with early intervention many
children learn enough skills to lead
independent lives.

No one knows for sure what has caused the
skyrocketing numbers of children diagnosed
with autism. Because of the gender bias
and because so many families have more
than one child with the disorder, several
ongoing studies are focusing on the
existence of a genetic link or mutation.
Other scientists are examining
environmental factors like diet, vaccinations
and pesticide exposure.

Part of the rise in incidence may be
attributed to a change in the definition of
autism spectrum disorders. For many years
it was easy to tell children who fit the classic
diagnosis of autism: An inability to relate to
others, poor or no speech, violent or
self-injurious behavior, repetitive or
seemingly meaningless activities. However,
the diagnosis has evolved to include
children who relate fairly well socially but
who have delays in other areas like
language or fine motor skills. (This is
sometimes called pervasive developmental
delay, not otherwise specified or
PDD-NOS.) On the other end of the
spectrum are children who have solid
communication skills but find it difficult to
relate to other people, sometimes
becoming obsessed with a narrow range of
ideas or objects, a disorder known as
Aspergers Syndrome.

But Lutzker said the change in evaluations
cannot completely explain what
professionals are seeing in their offices.

“It’s an interesting dilemma: Is it that we are
more aware of autism or are there truly
more incidents? I’m inclined to lean toward
more incidents just because of the endless
number of children we are seeing these
days,” he said.

Lutzker, a behavioral psychologist, is a
strong advocate of the discrete trial training
method of treating children with autism.
Discrete trial training (also called applied
behavior analysis or ABA), was designed
by Dr. Ivar Lovaas of UCLA in the 1960s
and uses behavior modification with both
positive and negative reinforcement to
shape the child’s response. Other
developmental professionals prefer using
the newer “floor time” therapy. Created by
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, a psychiatrist at
George Washington University Medical
School, this teaching method is
child-directed — the therapist follows the
child’s lead in playing games and
performing activities that enhance the child’s
communication skills. Many autistic children
also receive speech and occupational
therapies.

Working out a successful treatment plan is
one of the many battles that parents such as
the Helfings find overwhelming at times.
Both their boys have different strengths and
weaknesses and each requires a program
that supports their needs. Therapy, including
a home-based ABA program for Nathan
and Greenspan sessions for both, often
takes up eight or more hours a day for each
child. Ironically, both Barbara and Sheldon’s
professional training makes them
well-suited to the task of raising children
with special needs; Barbara has a Master’s
degree in education (including a credential
in special ed) and Sheldon teaches
psychology at local community colleges.

Barbara said the hardest part is dealing
with family and friends who don’t seem to
grasp what life with autism is all about, the
constant toll taken on the family’s time and
emotions and finances as they research
every option for helping their sons. She tells
the story of a friend who called up in tears
because her daughter had missed out on
getting into a gifted class by two points on a
test. Barbara said it was hard not to laugh
because “I wish for one moment that Leland
or Nathan had a problem like that!”

“What it comes down to is our kids are in a
perpetual toddlerhood,” she said. “Their
mental age is not where their chronological
age is; that’s what makes it more taxing for
us as parents. Other parents spend a lot of
time talking about their kids’
accomplishments and what we talk about
may not seem like much. But the things
other people take for granted, we really
appreciate.”

The family has struggled to find their place
in the Jewish community. Currently they are
not affiliated with any synagogue. Barbara
said when Leland was a toddler she joined
a Mommy & Me class at a large
Conservative temple, but was disheartened
by the response of other mothers when
Leland finally attempted to speak.

“He was vocalizing, making these sounds
that weren’t quite words, but it was the first
time he had even tried to talk,” Barbara
said. “And I saw two mothers pull their
children away from him, like it was
contagious. Instead of applauding that this
child was finally speaking, they reacted like
he had a disease.”

To add insult to injury, when Barbara called
to tell the teacher she and Leland were
leaving the class, the teacher asked if she
could tell the other mothers that Leland was
a special-needs child unsuited to the
program. Barbara said the feeling she got
from the experience was that children who
were different posed a threat to the
reputation of the highly touted,
“academically enriched” program. The
rejection, she said, still hurts.

Sheldon is quick to point out that not all the
family’s experiences with synagogues have
been negative.

“There are some good programs out there,”
he said. “But the general population reacts
from fear — what you don’t know might hurt
you. The misnomer about autistic kids is
that they’re crazed and violent, when in fact
they are so locked inside themselves they
would not hurt anyone.”

Dr. Bryna Siegel, author of “The World of
the Autistic Child,” has seen many Jewish
parents during her tenure at both Stanford
and the University of California at San
Francisco. Siegel, who is Jewish, said the
emphasis on education and the high
expectations of parents and grandparents in
our culture makes it more difficult to accept
a diagnosis of autism.

“The problems Jewish families have in
coping with autism is by and large what I
see in most well-educated, upper
middle-class families,” Siegel said. “There
is a much greater sense of disappointment
in having a child with a disability as
opposed to a working-class family. And
there isn’t as much room in the Jewish
community for these children as, say, in the
Mormon community where they are seen as
a chance for family members to grow
spiritually through love and compassion.
Judaism really doesn’t have an outlook like
that.”

Siegel said that in some cultures where
large families predominate, having a
special needs child is less of a burden
because the work can be shared among
more people.

“But except for the Chassidim, Jewish
families are not having a lot of kids. For
those families, this child may be their only
one, and that can be hard,” she said.

The Los Angeles Jewish community has
been slow to respond to the recent surge of
families with developmentally delayed
children. Few programs exist to teach these
children Jewish culture and values. In the
San Fernando Valley, there are special
needs programs at Valley Beth Shalom,
Temple Judea and Kol Tikvah, but except
for VBS, these programs are limited to a
few hours one or two mornings a week. The
standards of admission for Jewish day
schools such as Abraham Joshua Heschel,
automatically eliminate many children with
disabilities, including autism. Other schools
will only take an autistic child if a one-to-one
aide is provided, which may be out of the
financial range for parents already pushed
to the limit by medical treatments.

The University of Judaism, however, recently
established a Master’s degree program for
people interested in working with autistic
and abused children, which will put more
knowledgeable, appropriately trained
teachers out in the Jewish community. For
those already in the field, the Bureau of
Jewish Education, at its recent Early
Childhood Education conference, hosted a
seminar on Autism and Aspergers for
educators along with several classes on
evaluating children for speech and language
delays.

But the Helfings’ best advice to other
parents of autistic children is this:

“Know your child, their strengths and
weaknesses,” said Barbara. “Know the law,
or hire someone who does. The truth is, in a
situation like this the playing field is not
even. To the degree you’re informed about
your child, the disorder, what resources are
available and about your rights is the
degree to which you will be able to help your
child succeed.”

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