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Israeli-American Camp Embraces Autistic Boy, Increases Camper Compassion

Israeli-American Camp Embraces Autistic Boy, Increases Camper Compassion

No one had ever asked to take a selfie with Yarin, a 19-year-old boy with autism. But when his mother arranged for him to spend one week at the Israeli-American Council’s Machane Kachol Lavan summer camp, the resulting understanding and friendship changed everyone.

Ayelet Sason, mother of four, had a wild idea: to bring her 19-year old, low-functioning, autistic son to a mainstream camp. She knew it would be a challenging week for her nonverbal son, who spent most of his days immersed in an exclusively special-ed environment. Still, she felt strongly that Yarin deserved, “to experience being part of something bigger, to be part of the greater Jewish community.” She approached Or Tomer, the director of the Israeli-American Council (IAC)’s Machane Kachol Lavan camp with her bold proposition. To her delight, he accepted.

Ayelet arrived at the camp, located near Lake Arrowhead, California, dropped off her 7-year old son Liam, and began shadowing Yarin. As they settled in, most campers reacted to Yarin with indifference, the unfamiliar hand flapping, sounds and pacing of this 6-foot-tall camper compelling them to move away or leave.

Unfettered, the duo persisted with permission from camp administrators to skip around the camp schedule, joining whatever group or camp activity best suited Yarin. Staffers went out of their way to include Yarin whenever possible, but despite their efforts, Yarin remained isolated, as campers politely avoided him. That’s when Ayelet had another bold idea.

A few days later, the eldest group of campers gathered for a movie. The Israeli film “Ze Ach Sheli” (“That’s My Brother”) began to play. The documentary, by filmmaker Chagit Rabinovich, chronicled the family of an autistic child. Told from the siblings’ perspective, Liam and his other two siblings well understood the situations and heartache depicted: the pain of knowing his brother had no friends, the mixed feelings he experienced when friends declined sleepovers because they were afraid of Yarin’s sounds and body movements, the disappointment of passing up restaurants and events because Yarin’s volume and behavior would be too disruptive. Liam knew what it was like to be 12 years younger, but feel 12 years older because he was helping to raise his challenged brother. This movie was the story of his family.

After the film, the campers’ behavior changed. The film awoke their compassion for the brothers. The campers finally saw Yarin, and saw him with great dimension, as a nonverbal boy who still possessed intelligence and talents. They began interacting with him. When his compulsion to clean up in the dining hall surfaced, campers allowed him to clear their plates and wipe down their tables. They high-fived him when they passed. When the ball went out of bounds during basketball, Yarin became the official ball retriever. They called him to join in group photos. And after camp, Ayelet received a heartwarming email from a camper who said she missed Yarin. No one had ever said that before.

Liam especially appreciated the change. “I want everyone to know that they don’t have to be afraid to include us,” Ayelet said. “We will find solutions, but give us the chance to do that—don’t shut the door. Yarin is part of a family with three typical kids, and when communities don’t invite Yarin, they’re not supporting us.”

Because autistic children demand greater patience and caring, Ayelet believes those with special needs cultivate goodness in our society, as demonstrated at Camp Machane Kachol Lavan, where campers empowered with understanding exhibited great kindness, initiative and acceptance toward someone very different.

What will the long-term effects of camp be on Yarin? It’s impossible to predict with autism. But here is what we do know: whenever the kids approached him, Yarin giggled. Yarin smiles when he looks at camp pictures online. And as they drove away from camp at the end of the week, Yarin cried. So, despite his inability to communicate verbally, Yarin has made it perfectly clear that he absolutely loved camp.

Ayelet Zandberg Sason has dedicated my life to advocating for the rights and needs of autistic children and their families. Her career has led her from volunteer work at the Israeli cultural center – MATI, to becoming a program coordinator at the Israel-American Council for the largest Hebrew learning community in the US, Sifriyat Pijama B’America (SP-BA).

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