By Avigayil Kadesh
Yoav Friedman, a recent immigrant to Israel, is 31-years-old and has Asperger syndrome. A unique college program in Israel is giving him and eight others with Asperger, the opportunity to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
The autistic-spectrum disorder does not affect intellect, but people with Asperger often cannot find meaningful employment because they have difficulty interpreting verbal nuances, subtleties and humor as well as body language and facial expressions.
The special track at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, a Tel Aviv suburb, began in 2012 and currently includes students from the ages of 18 to 40.
The initiative started when Beit Ekstein, an Israeli organization that provides housing, employment and educational services to people with a range of disabilities, approached the college.
“They asked what I could do as head of special activities and programs at Kiryat Ono,” says Prof. Ilan Daniels Rahimi, who oversees specialized programs at the school such as a bachelor’s degree track for Druze women. Ono’s administrators believe in contributing to the social fabric of Israeli society, he says.
Beit Ekstein suggested that Rahimi, head of information systems analysis and entrepreneurship studies in Ono’s graduate business administration program, teach a course in information systems for students with Asperger.
“I said no, because this wouldn’t benefit them. If I taught them Microsoft Office, that would be interesting but these guys are capable of teaching it to themselves with a good book,” says Rahimi.
“I suggested something nobler: two or three courses, and if they cope well with them, build a whole academic program where they can get a bachelor’s degree.”
The course currently has nine men enrolled
The initial three-course program was so successful that the college shaped a full degree program for these students, many of whom are referred by Beit Ekstein.
Friedman says he decided to apply despite already having attended college in California. “I had a business before and didn’t understand how to run it, so now I will be able to keep track of what I’m doing. It’s very challenging, and I like the teachers and how they teach. They take time out of their day if you need extra help.”
Rahimi says all nine students seem happy. “I think we’ve changed lives,” he says. “I know it is very hard for them, but they are coping.”
Seeing themselves as normal people
Every potential student must have a formal diagnosis and an academic high school diploma, and must come for an interview along with his or her parents.
“We find out what they need, and we try to make them understand that they don’t have to change their life to gain a bachelor’s degree,” says Rahimi. “But they do have to change the way they think about themselves and an academic degree, and that is hard. We have to see them as normal people and they have to see themselves as normal people.”
The program is called Kfir (Lion Cub), he explains, “because if they put in enough effort, they can learn to fend for themselves.”
All the current students are male, which is to be expected because Asperger is more common in boys than in girls. “We are looking forward to accepting one female student,” Rahimi says. The maximum class size is 12.
Unlike most fulltime Israeli college programs that are three years in length, Kfir is five because it is based on a half time schedule. This way, participants can keep their current jobs if they have them. The three annual semesters include summers -- a demanding routine. Anyone who cannot keep up may remain as a non-matriculating student.
One of a kind
At 40, Rahimi is the oldest teacher in Kfir. The other four are in their 20s, all former army education officers or certified teachers. Extra training is provided by Beit Ekstein, which also provides a staff member in the classes full time to assist when communication problems arise.
“If we say something that could be understood two different ways, she steps in to clarify. It’s a process. The instructors try to encourage the students to communicate more, and building those skills is emphasized on a daily basis.”
As far as Rahimi knows, there is nothing like Kfir anywhere in the world
“We tried to find a similar program outside of Israel, and we couldn’t. In Israel there are some college programs that enable a few Asperger students to [be mainstreamed], but we understood from the students that it is very hard for them. Having a special program for these students is unique.”
Kfir’s coordinator, Ronit Ronen Man, agrees that this is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for people with Asperger syndrome.
“It allows them to fully use their cognitive skills while taking into account their social challenges and giving the opportunity to be part of a regular college campus,” she says.
Some of the Kfir students work in jobs that do not take full advantage of their intellectual skills, or don’t work at all. The Ono program strives to get them onto a real career path.
Two of the students have started working in Ono’s IT department, says Rahimi. “The chairman of the department spoke with key people in other colleges about accepting more of our students to work there as trainees or employees.”
He is hopeful that some of these students can do military service, a critical piece of the Israeli social fabric not usually available to those with special needs. He believes they can offer something important.
“People with Asperger’s have special capabilities, like distinguishing small details that you and I cannot,” he says. “We are working with the army to develop a special program for them to learn how to decipher aerial photos.”