From Dogs to Hydrotherapy, and Even Sex: Azrieli Faculty of Medicine Hosts Two-Day Conference on Autism, November 26-27, 2019

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At the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University's Third Annual Conference for Autism, the diverse background of participants was as well rounded as the topics covered.  Parents, therapists, academics, and students from as far south as Beersheva traveled to the Faculty's home in the Galilee city of Safed to learn about the latest developments in autism research and treatment. Particular focus was placed on the experience of parents and other family members when faced with a child diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Dr. Julia Carmel and Dr. Evan Elliott, the organizers of the conference that was made possible thanks to the support of Teva, the Ziv Medical Center, and AIMS-2-TRIALS, ensured that a wide variety of voices was heard. Common themes centered around the role of the family, early diagnosis and creative intervention. Dr. Elliott opened the first session and Dr. Yael Marantz of Teva added that she hopes to “strengthen the connection with the community…as there needs to be a strong connection between the parents and the researchers…ASD is part of the family.” Dr. Yael Gal, a developmental psychologist from the Golan pointed out that finding support systems in the North for siblings of those with ASD is difficult but said that many siblings actually become therapists themselves. The conference aimed to increase awareness, share ideas, and connect the participants from all over the country.

Indeed, several presenters, especially Tal Sadeh-Kon and Dr. Ronit Argaman, mentioned how excited they were to come speak in the North, as the bulk of their professional work takes place in the center of the country. Dr. Argaman very elegantly discussed a topic not often broached – sexuality and special needs. Ms. Sadeh-Kon, a nutritionist, raised interesting points about nutritional and eating issues commonly found among special needs and ASD children, as well as challenges with which most parents and families can identify. On a lighter note, Ilan Fromkin and Dr. Carmel demonstrated hands-on how helpful dogs can be when it comes to helping the autistic child, as well as family. Participants were offered the opportunity to train Louie the dog on stage!

Prof. Karl Skorecki, Dean of the Faculty, opened the second day stressing that “interdisciplinary work is crucial in this field, it’s the only way to develop – and we see this here.” He shared his interpretation of the book of Jonah, pointing out that some of the prophet’s behaviors may have seemed inappropriate, but the outcome of the story shows the importance of seeing the entire individual, the soul and not just the actions. Prof. Ditza Zachor, a well-known leader in the field and prolific researcher as well as physician, shared many relevant and practical research findings with participants. She noted that she holds professionals in the North of Israel with the highest regards and sees conferences such as this one as crucial for increasing awareness and cooperation.

Caroline Barmatz, Director of Hydrotherapy at Sheba Medical Center, showed videos of how successful water therapy can beand pointed out that there are dozens of hydrotherapy pools all over the country. “Israel is in fact a leader in hydrotherapy,” she said.

Research on probable predictors and causes of ASD was highlighted by Prof. Yoram Bonneh and Dr. Niva Shefer-Kaufman (as well as other presenters) in a manner understandable to the entire audience. Capping off two days filled with valuable information, Dr. Shefer-Kaufman shared her personal journey, as mother to a boy with severe autism. Her son was ultimately able to share his thoughts – very deep and insightful indeed – with the assistance of a keyboard. Her research and personal experience shed light and share hope for the families of autistic children struggling with communication. She shared videos of her family’s personal success story, inspirational to all.

On exhibit was artwork by two autistic youth; professional books as well as relevant educational materials and games were displayed for on-site purchase.

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