Upon first glance, Aluteva looks like another homey and quaint country family resort in northern Israel, one of the country’s most popular vacation destinations. The campus is surrounded by forest trees at the edge of Carmiel, families are lounging on plastic lounge chairs, and the green lawns and playground are dotted with colorful picket fences. Only upon closer look does it become apparent that Aluteva is highly different than any other country resorts in the area.
Aluteva is the only vacation spot in Israel, and possibly in the world, designed to cater to families with autistic children. The clues quickly become obvious; the campus is enclosed by fences and a security gate, the pool is raised instead of at ground level, and a young boy paces in a repeated pattern along the cement paths, clapping his hands.
Aluteva doesn’t have the funds or intention to offer five star amenities, but it provides one amenity that makes some families feel like it’s a five star resort: sensitivity to the needs of children with autism.
The concept was devised in 2003 by Alut, the Israeli Society for Autistic Children, to provide an innovative, permanent year-round solution for families for whom vacation is an essential need, but one that is often out of reach.
“We understand the complexity for families with autistic children to go out on vacation,” explained Aluteva’s director Nechama Amidan. “Often they don’t take a vacation because it’s difficult to go out on a vacation with an autistic child given the behavior of the child and safety concerns. The children are sometimes not aware of the dangers, and they can jump in a pool, cross a red light. They require the parents’ constant surveillance.”
Autism is a neurological development disorder that falls under the umbrella of pervasive development disorders (PDD) or autism spectrum disorders, and is usually characterized by abnormal social interactions, limited communication skills, and repetitive and obsessive behaviors which range in severity from individual to individual. According to Alut’s estimates, some 5,000 to 6,000 Israelis are diagnosed with autism, a disorder which crosses all racial boundaries. More and more children are being diagnosed with autism worldwide, in part because of improved diagnostic techniques. Today about one child out of every 250 is diagnosed with autism.
Upon discovering their child has been diagnosed with the disorder, parents are often required to restructure their lives to learn about it, to discover appropriate educational frameworks and therapies, and to normalize as best as possible the family dynamic.
“Parents are often stressed from the moment they discover their child has a problem, and they naturally take upon themselves the responsibility to give their child the best care,” explained Amidan. “Their concern with the future stresses them out and they aren’t emotionally available to think about the long-term. Vacation seems like a special luxury for people who are in survival mode.”
Vacation is particularly difficult for families of children diagnosed with low-functioning autism since at times these children can exhibit behaviors that deviate from what is socially acceptable in public places. At one point during this reporter’s tour at Aluteva, a 15-year old boy named Ron repeatedly came up to smell my hair, a behavior which would have likely startled any vacationer at a regular hotel.
“He seems to like certain smells, certain shampoo smells. You’re not the first one, but you can take it as a compliment,” Ron’s mother explained on the lawns of Aluteva. Ron’s parents and younger sister are regulars at Aluteva. Ron cannot read, write, or speak, and smelling hair is likely a form of self-stimulation and a means of social interaction.
“My son needs constant activity; it’s hard taking care of him. He likes going places, but it’s hard to take him places because of the way he behaves. He doesn’t enjoy himself, and we have to run around after him.”
Generally children on the autistic spectrum prefer and require routine which steadies them in a world they perceive as threatening and ever-changing. Usually after a few days of acclimating at Aluteva, they begin to enjoy themselves. “He’s already used to the place so he’s happy when he comes here,” Ron’s mother said.
The premises of Aluteva have been converted from an Israeli army base. They are cheerfully decorated, compact and, what is more important for parents, enclosed. A specially trained staff is on hand full-time to keep an eye on the children as they freely wander around. Accommodations include eight guest rooms, most of which are built with two bedrooms and a small living room.
Children with autism generally require healthy doses of physical movement and sensory-visual stimuli due to impairments of the sensory system, and Aluteva is equipped with an indoor Gymboree and a unique room called “Snoozyland”, which features furniture and items that titillate the senses: strobe lights, puffy cushions, and background music. The staff organizes special activities and tours in northern Israel catered to the learning needs of autistic children.
For the parents, the luxuries are not physical, but social and psychological.
A typical entry in Aluteva’s guestbook reads: “You gave us the strength to continue with our routine, to enjoy the feeling of being a normal family, and to rest in a way we can’t do in the center of the country.”
At Aluteva they need not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable by their children’s socially abnormal behaviors. It gives parents and siblings of individuals with autism the opportunity to share their experiences and challenges in a relaxing and casual environment.
Younger guests are not necessarily aware that Aluteva is a guest house for children with special needs. This is Sarah’s third visit to Aluteva with her four children, ranging from ages three to eleven. At age four, her eldest son, Yonatan, was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, an informal term used to describe individuals who are able to function more independently in the real world. They have higher cognitive abilities and more mainstream day-to-day behaviors. Eleven-year-old Yonatan attends a regular school and only recently learned that he has been diagnosed with PDD.
“They think it’s a vacation place with strange kids walking around,” his mother explained.
Sarah recalls one frightening incident in which a boy with severe autism innocuously trespassed into her children’s room in the middle of the night. When it happened a second time, her children simply escorted the boy back to his parents without discomfort or umbrage on the part of either families. “It’s very educational,” she said. “For higher functioning kids and their siblings there can be a positive sense of helping the lower functioning kids.”
Next door to Aluteva is a petting zoo belonging to a neighboring boarding school where Aluteva sometimes takes the families. Animals are often used in therapy for children with PDD to teach them empathy and communication. As a few families staying at Aluteva take a walk across the forest to the zoo, one boy claps his hands routinely.
Sarah’s five-year old daughter, who does not have autism, tugs at her mother’s shirt and asks: “why does he do that?”
The scientific answer is that it is a form of self-stimulation, but her mother lovingly replies: “God made everyone different.”