For many high school teachers keeping their class quiet can be a challenge. But for Daniel Silvera, an industrial technology teacher at ORT Daniel Mayer High School in the Paris suburb of Montreuil, the day one of his pupils spoke to him was one of the best moments of his career.
Mr Silvera volunteers his time to teach heavily autistic teenagers who attend the ORT school three days a week in a programme run in partnership with Ohalei Yaacov, an organisation which provides activities for adolescents with autism and support for their families.
“For eight months this one boy communicated with me only with his hands and just looked at me with these big eyes,”? Mr Silvera said. “But one day, after eight months of perseverance, he spoke to me and now we have conversations. It was like seeing a baby walk for the first time.”?
It is two years since a small group of 17- and 18-year-olds from Ohalei Yaacov first came to ORT Montreuil “ﾓ the only high school in Paris to respond positively to the charity’s plea for partnership. “The [school’s Director], Esther Douieb, has done a lot to integrate these young people,”? said the school’s Deputy Director, Elio Lumbroso. “She met the Director of Ohalei Yaacov and decided, with the agreement of [ORT France National Director] Marc Timsit to offer them a classroom and to pay for their learning material.”?
Too disabled to join the school’s regular classes “ﾓ this is the Ohalei Yaacov students’ first experience of school “ﾓ every attempt is made to integrate them into school life as much as possible. And as the programme heads towards its third year ideas are taking shape on how to take it up a level, such as encouraging students to mentor an autistic peer.
“At the beginning, the regular students were curious about these half-a-dozen autistic kids who started having lunch with them,”? Mr Lumbroso said. “But now they accept them so easily. They also attend school assemblies and go to the synagogue which we have on site and they socialise with other students during the morning and afternoon breaks. They speak with all the children in the school. Once a month we organise a special meal for these part-time students and our regular students and we find that friendships can develop between them. When they are back at the Ohalei Yaacov day centre they constantly ask their educators when they can come back to ORT.”?
Some of the Ohalei Yaacov students have undergone training with two firms, one a book repairer, the other a shipping company. With Mr Silvera they learn electronics and how to use computers but the programme’s other activities include arts and crafts, which can be related to Jewish festivals. However, the purpose of the ORT Montreuil programme goes beyond ORT’s usual vocational goals.
“These young people are angels, they have a special neshama (soul),”? said Mr Silvera. “But we have a problem in France with how young adults with autism are catered for. There are activities for them when they are children but if these teenagers did not come to us they would go to psychiatric hospitals. With us you can see how day after day they develop their senses “ﾓ so, for example, one who is more tactile begins to speak more and even to shake hands with us which is a big achievement. Their parents have told us that they have improved so much and in so many ways. And it is very important for our regular students to recognise the dignity and humanity of people who are different from them and, perhaps, not so fortunate.”?
ORT Montreuil has undergone an impressive renovation in recent years which has enhanced its material facilities. The programme with Ohalei Yaacov has enriched the spirit of the school community.
“I had never worked with autistic children before,”? said Mr Silvera, who has taught at ORT Montreuil for 35 years. “I hadn’t had any special training so it was difficult at the beginning. Every day I had to talk to the psychologist who manages the programme in order to adapt and develop my techniques. Each child needs a special programme, individualised care and attention which takes into account their abilities. Some of them are very good with their hands, another listens very well; each one has special capacities. It’s a very rich experience. I think that I’ve learned more by doing this than they have learned from me. This experience has changed me; it has helped me in my teaching of regular students because I’ve seen the difficulties of the autistic kids and I’m now more patient. It has brought me a lot of happiness.”?
A video of Mr Silvera with the disabled youth at ORT Montreuil can be seen at Ohalei Yaacov’s website http://www.lesilencedesjustes.fr/ . It can be found at the bottom of the “Integration Scolaire”? webpage.