Israeli City Opens Much-needed School for Autistic Students

Bright walls, natural light, small windows, good acoustics and a sensory room are all part of new school - now, just 15 more needed.

Naama Riba
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Ashkelon school for autistic students.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Among Israel’s 1.7 million schoolchildren include some 11,000 children known to fall within the autistic spectrum.

“There has been a large increase in diagnosed children,” says Shahar Bar-Yehuda, education director at The Israel Society for Autistic Children, noting that figure was just 1,000 a decade ago.

Many of those diagnosed attend mainstream schools, but 2,300 of them require a separate framework. However, the number of schools has barely risen. There were 38 such schools last year, most of them converted from schools for mentally handicapped children or public buildings.

“It’s like tower and stockade,” says Bar-Yehudah, referring to the illegal settlements put up overnight in pre-State Israel in the 1930s and 1940s. “One day it’s a community center and the next it’s a school.”

Just 12 schools were built expressly for autistic children, like “Mul Tavor” in the Lower Galilee or “Hashahar” in Petah Tikva. Some have become old.

On Tuesday, a new and innovative school in Ashdod, the city’s first, joined the rather limited list. It will serve 48 students.

Tali Maimon, the woman behind the initiative, joined the Ashdod municipality five years ago as its special education director.

“We found a significant increase in the number of autistic children in need of a school with no local option,” she recalls. “The children would travel to Ashkelon.”

A forum was established to determine the children’s needs. At first money was allocated for just younger children, but Maimon insisted on simultaneously building a space for 13-21 year-olds as well.

“I objected at the time to young students starting to learn and having to wait while they build the second part, and I managed to prevent building in stages,” she says.

The building cost 14 million shekels ($3.57 million), some 9 million shekels coming from the state lottery and Education Ministry, and the rest coming from the City of Ashdod. Architects Ron Fleischer and Yoav Lanir planned the school together. Lacking a prototype in Israel, they consulted with experts in Israel and abroad.

“These children need natural light, calm, bright walls, a lot of shade, good acoustics and bathrooms attached to every classroom,” explains Bar-Yehuda.

The result looks like no other school in Israel. It is made up of 10 classrooms – six for the younger children and four for the 13-21 year-olds. There are also common spaces with a capacity of 80 children in the 1,750-square-meter school, which lies on 10 dunams (two and a half acres) of land.

Needed: 15 more

Off-white walls greet visitors who arrive at the school.

“The scale of colors is like that of Maccabi Health Services,” says Fleischer with a smile, referring to one of Israel’s HMOs. The windows hide above the walls, connecting to internal courtyards that surround the classrooms and treatment rooms. There is a large common space at the school entrance that will eventually contain wooden furniture.

“It’s doesn’t look like a regular classroom – it’s more like a studio,” says Fleischer. “There are all sorts of shapes for sitting. Some of the furniture are fixed and some are mobile, and there are places on the walls to hang framed items.”

Besides the 36-square-meter teaching space, there is an activity room next to each classroom and a small courtyard.

“We wanted a big window for each classroom, but transparency is not good for autistic children,” Fleischer notes. “We had to temper it, so we planned a window that faces a small, walled-in courtyard.”

Every two classrooms are paired with one another. There is a joint bathroom for every two classrooms for the younger children, and a training apartment in the section that includes a cooking station for the older children. Bar-Yehuda says that in order to close the gap another 15 schools for autistic children are needed – five a year.

“The Ashdod school just opened and there are already dozens of students in it,” he says. “Next year they’ll flood it.”

The lack of proper schools leads to over-enrolment, as has happened in Be’er Sheva and Mateh Asher.

“Sometimes schools that can only handle 50-60 children accept 110,” says Bar-Yehuda. “You can only imagine how it looks and sounds.”

Autistic children need quiet and order, he explains, but just the opposite is the situation in some autism schools.

“Because of the overload, there is noise in the classrooms and children learn in the hallways,” he says. “For a child like this, to sit in a noisy atmosphere is like playing drums in your head.”

Attorney Revital Len Cohen, among the leaders of the Parents Coalition for Special Children, notes that the lack of designated schools leads to converting areas allotted for special activities into classrooms.

“They give up each time on something else that the children need for therapy,” she says, angrily. “One of the important places in an autism school is a sensory room, which is designated for stimulating the child’s senses and getting him to explore his surroundings. Most institutions lack such a room, and if there were – they give it up to make a new classroom.”

Bar-Yehuda adds that local authorities have no interest in building autism schools.

“If a city wants it, it can build a school within 10 months, but the authorities would rather transport children than build,” he says.

The sorry situation is that children with special needs are forced to travel sometimes more than an hour each way, every day.

“Children from Ramat Gan, Givatayim, Herzliya, Bnei Brak, Ra’anana, Kfar Sava and elsewhere all go to Tel Aviv. Look how many children one school accepts.” Bar-Yehuda says. “I ask these municipalities, where are you?”

Numerous parents have joined the fight together with The Israel Society for Autistic Children. Ricky Naim Blumenfeld of Pardes Hannah is a mother of two autistic children. She manages a Facebook group of parents with similar children, and waged a battle to build a school for her son.

“He studied for three years in the same sixth grade, in a school close to home, because I refused to send him to a high school far away,” she says.

At the end of a drawn-out battle, Bet Ekstein, which provides housing, employment and educational services for people with special needs, funded in partnership with the Education Ministry the conversion of a religious boarding school in Pardes Hannah into an autism school.

The number of students there has grown annually. “We started with two classrooms and now there are six,” says Naim Blumenfeld. The growth requires opening another classroom, a fight they were waging as the school year began this week.

In addition to her individual case, Naim Blumenfeld says the load in schools and inability to match different levels of functionality force some parents to keep their children at home, with some of them doing home schooling with funding from the Education Ministry.

“Wouldn’t it be fiscally preferable to build additional appropriate classrooms?” she asks.

The Education Ministry commented: “New frameworks are opened every year for autistic children. At the same time, there is a plan for building autism schools that is progressing in stages.”

The ministry added that sometimes children with different disabilities are integrated into the same framework because their needs are similar.