Learning with lightbulbs: Adapting education for refugee children with autism

Wafa Dakwar, Medical Aid for Palestinians' (MAP’s) Senior Programme Officer in Lebanon, discusses how the MAP-supported Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation’s Habilitation preschool, in Mar Elias camp, Beirut, helped seven-year-old Hasan and his family. The preschool provides educational and rehabilitation services to more than one hundred children with disabilities each year.

Hasan is seven years old and from Burj el Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. He lives with his mother, father, and four older siblings in a humble house in the camp. At four years of age, Hasan’s mother, Aisha, noticed that he was not doing things his brother did when they were his age. This concerned her, so she brought him to the Habilitation preschool for an assessment.

The initial interview with his mother showed that Hasan has all the behavioral and communication signs of autism. The Habilitation preschool team then conducted a comprehensive assessment with Hasan covering physical, emotional, cognitive, and social developmental domains. Based on this, an intervention plan was designed for Hasan in agreement with his family.

“When I first brought my son to the preschool, he didn’t communicate, express himself, or have eye contact with anyone. When he wanted something, he used to cry. This was the only way he communicated with us,” Aisha explained.

During the three years Hasan attended the Habilitation preschool, he faced many difficulties but managed, with the support of the team, to overcome these and make good progress.

The team observed that Hasan likes to play with door handles, electrical buttons and switches, and light bulbs. So, they used this to engage Hasan in their educational activities. They made him a table with multiple lightbulbs and switches in different colours. They used this table to teach him colours, for instance asking him to turn on the red or blue light bulb, and the numbers, for example asking him to turn on two light bulbs. They also built for him a wooden toy house with doors and door handles. This allowed him to safely play with things he is interested in and learn at the same time.

“The team are very creative in finding ways to teach our children. I saw Hasan playing with the light bulbs table and I was surprised to see him respond to the teacher immediately and give her the right answers. It was the first time I saw him that responsive. I was very happy. They also made him a wooden house and gave him his own key. He used to look forward to going to the centre to play with it. I even noticed that he is no longer interested in touching real switches and lightbulbs; he has now a better understanding of hazards,” Aisha added.

At the Habilitation preschool his parents were also trained on technique to use at home to reap the good results. The team also worked with his siblings to help them understand and support Hasan better. For example, at some point, Hasan developed an attachment to his eldest brother, Ahmad, which Ahmad found difficult. According to Ahmad, Hasan was not letting him study and was playing with his books and notebook. This matter led to a violent confrontation between the two. The Habilitation preschool team invited Ahmad to discuss his relationship with his brother. For months, the team worked intensively with Ahmad to prevent his angry outbursts and, at the same time, gave him the personal space that he needed.

In the summer, Hasan completed his preschool programme, and the developmental assessment results showed that he is ready to move to more advanced classes. Aisha told MAP that the Habilitation preschool has made a major difference to her family’s life. It helped her and her other children as much as it helped Hasan. She feels she is stronger and able to take the right decisions related to her son.

Names have been changed to protect the identity of persons involved

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