SPECIAL REPORT: Are Jewish youth movements failing autistic children?

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SPECIAL REPORT: Are Jewish youth movements failing autistic children?

To mark World Autism Acceptance Week, Jewish News asks whether our own community provides sufficient provision

Pic: RSY
Pic: RSY

In February 2020, leading Jewish charities Kisharon, Norwood and Langdon, in conjunction with community SEN (special educational needs) school, Gesher commissioned a research paper on the provision and demand for learning disability services in the community.

The resulting Cordis Bright report focused specifically on 18 local authorities across London, the south east and Greater Manchester.

The organisations estimated that of the 186,800 people who identified as being members of the Jewish community across the authorities covered by the research, around 3,700 adults had a learning disability. Jewish adults who defined as being on the autistic spectrum numbered around 1,380.

By 2035, the report believes that those Jewish adults and children with a diagnosis of autism will have risen from around 1,820 to at least 2,080.

The question then, is not just whether our youth movements are already providing adequate provision, but whether they will be able to do so in the face of increased demand.

Cordis Bright data from 2019 collaborative report.

Hadassa Kessler, director of operations at Kisharon, tells Jewish News that the findings from the Cordis Bright report highlight that there is a large number of, and a predicted increase in autistic people and people with learning disabilities that will need support in the next 10 years.

“This shows,” she says, that “it is essential for Jewish youth movements to be inclusive so everyone has equal opportunities to take part and for the wider community to be welcoming and accepting of autistic people and people with learning disabilities.”

Ali Durban and Sarah Sultman, who co-founded SEN school Gesher in 2017, told Jewish News that autism rates are currently “1 in 44, but anecdotally there are at least two children in every classroom of 30 pupils in every Jewish school who have barriers to learning, with ASC and ADHD often cited as the largest group.”

Describing Jewish youth movements as “a microcosm of the community” they believe that if we can get it right when people are young, “it lays the foundations for a broader, more inclusive society when they are adults. However, inclusion for youth movements is not straightforward, mainly because there is no answerable body or framework inspector under which they operate. For example, Reshet (the network for Jewish youth provision) has done much work in the field of safeguarding. Still, it is not a formally accredited body like Ofsted that provides a compliance framework for organisations to measure their practice and be evaluated transparently and publicly.”

The Jewish parent of an autistic child, who spoke to Jewish News on condition of anonymity, observed that the adage of it taking a village to raise a child couldn’t be more true for a child who has disabilities.

She said: “And yet our son was isolated. No parties. No playdates. No eye contact from parents passing on the way into school. It was as if my child’s very being in school was an imposition at best – an unwelcomed distraction at worst.  He was avoided as if contagious. Over time, his experience of isolation grew and he became critically aware that he had no friends. He blamed himself and the fact that he has special needs for his loneliness and developed a sense of self-loathing which impacted on his mental health quite severely.”

The child’s mother sent him to various youth camps with reform youth movement RSY, which she says “pierced and filled the void created by the isolation he experienced in every other context.”

Cordis Bright report data, 2019.

She says it took some courage to tell camp staff about his needs as, “in all other contexts,” these had not been welcomed.

However. “RSY wanted to know. They wanted me to be open and honest about his needs so that they could provide the support that he required. RSY didn’t promise that camp would  ‘work for him’, but they set out a plan that gave him more of a chance than he’d ever had before. A madrach available to him should he be struggling, a quiet area where he could calm, additional support with social interactions and kindness with a capital K. They knew that ‘when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’ – and my son was an individual.”

RSY Netzer spokesperson Sharon Daniels told Jewish News: “Inclusive practices are central to our leadership development programme, ensuring all leaders understand how to create programmes which are engaging, exciting and educational for all, including those with autism and other neuro-diversities.  Our Wellbeing Team develop bespoke support plans with people, to reflect their individuality and to ensure they get the most out of our events.  We know that with the right support, residential camps and Israel Tour can be valuable experiences for everyone, developing their Jewish identity, social networks and confidence.”

Pic: Bnei Akiva

Sara Pollins, director of fundraising and marketing at Langdon tells Jewish News that since the Cordis Bright Report was commissioned four years ago, “we have seen an increase in referrals to our Supported Living services across London and Manchester.”

Accordingly, they have expanded their youth provision (Langdon Brady Youth Club) in response to “growing need, serving primary age children and up in different areas of North London with special educational needs, learning disabilities and autism.”

The planned merger between Langdon and Kisharon will offer “improved pathways for parents through all education key stages from nursery, school and college provision, through to lifelong learning opportunities into adulthood.”

Danielle Petar, assistant head, Inclusion SENDCo at Gesher, passionately believes that inclusion is so much more than allowing a child to attend an event or be included in a youth movement.

“Being a part of something,” Petar says, “doesn’t necessarily mean you feel included in it! Inclusion means more than joining in; it means those who are involved have a deep understanding of individual needs, it means putting scaffolds in place to support that child to engage in all the ‘same’ activities as others, it means ensuring the environment has supports in place for those children, and it means not watering down the experience just because you think a child cannot or will not do something.”

Sultman and Durban both believe that to be fully inclusive means to give all children the same experiences, with the necessary support for all those involved to succeed.

Sarah Sultman, Ali Durban (left to right), co-founders, Gesher School

“Too often” they told Jewish News, “we hear of organisations, camps and events being inclusive. Still, when you observe or hear stories of children attending these, who don’t fit in the same box as others, it is more often than not evident that they have a different experience.”

UJIA told Jewish News the organisation believes every Jewish young person in the UK should be empowered to fully participate in Jewish life: “We work with partner organisations that provide a positive, caring, safe and stimulating environment, and promote the social, physical and emotional well-being of every young person.”

Each year UJIA trains more than 120 British youth movement leaders and madrichim for programmes like Israel Tour and Birthright “to enable more than 2000 young people, including neurodiverse people, to have meaningful, life-changing experiences in Israel.”

Year 9 Bnei Akiva.

UJIA says it is “continually working to ensure that our programmes become even more accessible to young people with diverse needs.”

This year, in an effort to improve inclusion in their programmes even further, it is partnering with Maccabi GB, JCoSS and Langdon on the ‘Elliott Simmons Challenge Israel Tour‘ 2023 for 16-20 year olds with special educational needs.

UJIA says it’s a “brilliant initiative and part of our ongoing effort to make our community as inclusive as possible.”

Youth group BBYO told Jewish News it prides itself on inclusion and accessibility. “All our events have alternative options such as a quiet room where there would be board games and trained welfare staff. Teens are also able to check out sensory toys and useful items such as noise-cancelling headphones at camps and events so that they are still able to take part in the main event without being overwhelmed by noise.”

BBYO says it ensures staff and volunteers are trained to support young people with different needs and, when necessary, put in place ‘care plans’ with parents to make sure their child’s needs are being met. It also “updates our training and structure, when necessary, in line with young people’s changing needs in a post-covid world.”

Gidon Schwartz, Mazkir (National Director), Bnei Akiva UK tells Jewish News the religious Zionist movement endeavours to cater for as many participants as they possibly can.

“We have been working in partnership with Gesher school, which specialises in helping those with special educational needs. They have provided training for our madrichim and shown us how to adapt our programming for those with autism. Suggestions they made included outlining the daily schedule the night before with children who struggle with uncertainty, as well as having quiet spaces with sensory activities that are always accessible to them when needed.”

Additionally, one of Bnei Akiva’s sabbatical workers is conducting a qualitative research project into the conduciveness of camps for neurodiverse young people.

They also have a disability working group which “convenes regularly looking at all elements of our programming and how they can be as inclusive as possible for those with additional needs, including autism.”

In the run up to their day and residential camps and Israel Machane trip, “our welfare co-ordinator works with chanichim (participants)and madrichim to put in place personalised care plans for any participant for whom they would be beneficial.”

As for what should come next for the community in terms of genuine, insightful and impactful provision, Gesher’s Durban and Sultman have a clear vision of next steps – that Jewish youth movements could and should be learning from one another.

They conclude that, as an example, “a spirit of genuine cross-communal engagement” could see RSY share its practice with a movement like Bnei Akiva. “We could look to America to organisations like Yachad and particularly camp Ramah who, through its Tikvah programme, facilitates inclusion at camps incredibly well and demonstrate that with genuine commitment and dedication, budget and resource, youth movements can succeed at being fully inclusive. At Ramah, inclusion is perceived as the responsibility of everyone, bringing benefits to all.”

An inclusive practice, they believe, respects what makes people different, celebrates diversity, and uses a needs-based approach.

“It is not just about the content delivered in sessions and experiences but about the atmosphere and spaces we foster. It is about building trust so that every young person feels valued and valuable.”


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