By Caroline Feghaly
LAU Tribune staff
As I sat in the classroom interviewing the shadow teacher, we heard Karim crying out loud as if he’s having a nervous breakdown. She rushed to him, held him, and successed in calming him down.
Karim, 10, Peter and Tarek, 9, and Naji, 6, are four autistic students enrolled in the Lebanese Evangelical School for Boys and Girls in Loueizeh.
Autism, as defined by the Autism Society Of America (ASA) is “a complex developmental disability that typically appears during the first three years of life and is the result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain, impacting development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.”
LES is among the first schools in Lebanon to accept autistic children. Such cases usually enroll in institutions for students with disabilities and special needs, or are homeschooled.
The program at LES was started by three of these four boys’ mothers. They rented a classroom for their children where the latter would study privately, but would be integrated with others for some lessons.
Dr. Steven White, LES’ principal, encouraged this plan because he believes there are three ways to deal with students who suffer from autism.
The first consists of building a separate school where autistic children would be taught exclusively. The second is to include them simultaneously in other classes for short periods of time during the day –what LES is doing. The third approach consists of providing them a classroom at school without integrating them with other students.
Karim, Peter, Tarek and Naji aren’t the first autistic students that LES has accepted.
White remembered an incident where a third-grade autistic girl came with her mother and suddenly started twirling around herself. An eleventh grader was present and schokingly asked White the reason for her conduct. Her classmates, however, had been already exposed to such behavior and did not react in the same way.
“There is mutual benefit for both, us and the autistic kids for mingling. But, we benefit from them more for we learn to accept each other,” he said.
It was Peter’s birthday when I visited. The four boys, their teachers and other students, were celebrating it. I found a cake, sweets, and decoration.
Maya El-Saneh, a shadow teacher who majored in physchology, described the educational programs LES uses with the autistic students.
The school opts for the applied behavior analysis program for autism treatement, an approach that consists of behaviorally stimulating autistic children.
The four children are only familiar with a couple of terms. For example, if they want to eat, they would say “eat”, but, they cannot determine what type of food they want.
To develop their vocabulary, the teachers keep pictures with them so when they want something, they can point to the picture and learn its name.
There is also the circle time when they sit in a circle and say “good morning” to each other. This teaches them interaction. They also have activities such as matching objects and their names together. The children can only interact in one language, English.
They also go to chapel where they listen to songs and participate.
El-Saneh said that Peter took about two months to get used to his surrounding. Today, the four children are integrated. They even memorized the teachers’ facial expressions.
“It is a stereotype that autistic children need space. They love and need affection,” she said.
“ We also must believe that if we follow up with them and implement the correct procedure in treating them, they can be cured,” she added.
Vanina Ghossein, the homeroom teacher, assured me that other students are not discriminating but rather love to be around the four autistic children.
Ghossein said autistic children have very high levels of frustration where they clearly show their emotions. Instructors teach them to be patient by having them count out loud before giving them what they want.
“Other young students pay attention to how we work with them, so they imitate us. They are of real help,” she said smilingly.
She focused on the importance of interaction between the consultant, therapists, teachers, and parents.
“Consistent behavior is very important. Autistic children are very sensitive and they should be treated in school the same way they are treated at home,” Ghossein said. “If we teach them to count till three before taking the object they want, it should also be the same at home.”
Dr.White emphasized the importance of the experiment for LES. “We need to learn to live together and deal with each other,” he said. “Everybody is damaged, some are heart broken, others are hurt in their mind. The only difference is that the damage of autistic kids is visible.”