Hamza Says…Touch Your Head

Today we had our training session presented by Qiess about receptive communication. We were all awake by 8:00 to practice some demonstrations that would make the presentation more interactive. Parents and teachers gave different examples of receptive communication skills throughout the training sessions today that were specifically related to their children or to the students they currently work with. Some of these examples were asking the child to bring a glass of water, to brush his/her teeth, to pull out the books or to present the homework. Also, Qiess and Hana demonstrated a simple example to the parents and teachers about how to teach a specific receptive skill following a natural environment teaching approach. After that, parents and teachers had the opportunity to practice giving those instructions to each other to teach receptive skills like sorting colors in different ways. In order to help everyone understand receptive communication, we played a modified version of Simon Says, “Hamza Says”.

By the end of the sessions, parents and teacher shad some questions about the steps of improving receptive skills. Therefore, Qiess and Hana also demonstrated how to assess and identify targets for receptive communication skills. Qiess stressed that those targets should always be related to what the child needs, not to what the parent or the teacher needs him/her to do.


We also had two families sign up for the community outings next week, and they chose the sites where their children face difficulties and need support.

After the session, we were so excited to hear two of the parents we have in our program share how their children’s communication has improved significantly at home. Lama was so happy that Reema now requests for every item she wants. She mentioned that Reema’s behaviors and skills are generally improving as a result of teaching her to request. Also, Maisa,  Hani’s mother, shared with us that Hani is using 4-word requests that he learned in the last cooperative session at home with her and his siblings to request a pen and a paper to write. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing results no matter how small those improvements are.

After coming back to our apartment, we took a quick break and continued to work on and plan for other areas of the program.

The great news for today is that our amazing team member, Sarah, is arriving tonight from her quick weekend vacation! We are all ‘super’ excited!



The Surprises (and an Extreme Heat Wave) Continue

The theme of unpredictability in Mersin continued into this weekend. The team was expecting my arrival on Saturday but I showed up on Friday evening instead. After pulling some strings and arranging for transportation, the team was nice enough to come and greet me at the airport personally. After our car ride from Adana, we took time to briefly acquaint ourselves with one another.


My arrival on Friday turned out to be fortune in disguise as it cleared our entire Saturday. We began the day by reviewing the program and the successes we’ve made thus far, as well as what our plans are for the coming weeks. Afterwards, we decided to make a second batch of home-made Playdoh. We found the smell of the jarred beets to be a bit overwhelming. After a little problem solving from Melissa and Hana, we used a scented water to make the Playdoh a bit more pleasant to play with. We ended the day by walking across the boardwalk and enjoying a cup of tea together.


Sunday the team was kind enough to show me around the city center of Mersin. I was amazed and dizzied by the multitude of different shops on each block. Pastry shops, street food carts, clothing stores, and some jack of all trades vendors – everything you could want was found there. After our tour we returned home and enjoyed a meal together. We wrapped up the day by reviewing the upcoming weeks lesson and activities.


After getting to know the amazing members of our team, I’m looking forward to the week ahead. Tomorrow we will be going over receptive communication with the parents and teachers and breaking it down further throughout the week.


Monday evening, Sarah will be returning from her brief trip to the UK. We’re excited to have her return and have our fabulous five for the next few weeks!



What is an Alternative to Food Coloring?

Today, Melissa, Hana and I spent our time working at home. Also, it is important to mention that today was ‘waterfall day’, where the building’s cleaner mops the stairs and uses SO MUCH water. The last time we had the ‘waterfall day’ Sarah fell when we were on our way to the center. Melissa and I were super careful and used the elevator to avoid falling, but the water was EVERYWHERE up to the front gate of the building.

Translating, preparing and designing; each of us worked on different things today. Hana finalized the press release with Melissa and continued translating our training sessions’ presentations. We decided few days ago to make home-made Playdoh to use in the program with our kids. So, Melissa and I took a quick trip to the grocery to buy the ingredients (Don’t worry, we survived going out of the building without falling into the waterfalls!). We did not find any food coloring products for the Playdoh in both groceries next to our building. So, Melissa googled ‘alternatives for food coloring’ and found that canned beet can be useful. We will try it tomorrow and share the results with you soon!

Earlier this morning, one of our amazing parents in our training, Lama, sent a picture of her daughter, Reema, holding colors on our WhatsApp group. We were thrilled knowing that Reema is now requesting to color using the word ‘coloring’ (in Arabic). We were also so happy seeing other teachers and parents on the group sharing supportive comments for Lama and her daughter Reema. The parents and teachers we have in our training always make us proud!

Our fifth team member, Qiess, will arrive to Adana tonight. We are so excited to have Qiess joining us to support families and children with autism in our program.



Every Day Brings New Surprises

Early this morning, Sarah and Kitti left to Adana’s airport (Sarah is coming back soon, don’t worry!). It was a pleasure meeting Kitti. We wish she had the chance to join us for the rest of the program.

Today we had our third and fourth groups for their cooperative sessions. Our morning session was with Ali and Reema. We divided up the session to have each teacher practice working with a child on our targeted skill, which was making requests and asking for items. At the beginning of the session, Reema was interested in playing with the Legos, and sometimes with the Playdoh. Reema was trying to request these items verbally and by pointing to them. She was doing an amazing job trying. Her mother and her teacher were also doing great with following up on her requests. Ali was interested in Playdoh, and later in bubbles. He clearly requested for Playdoh verbally few times today. His mother was so excited and was happy to see his efforts. In the middle of the session, Ali was distracted by the noise and the presence of other toys. In order to address this, we continued Reema’s session with her mother and one of the teachers in separate room. We ended both sessions on a successful request.


Our afternoon session was with Hani, who we were very excited to have since it was his first cooperative session in the program. Hani was very enthusiastic during the session and had all of us smiling and clapping for him most of the time. He was interested in playing with the cars, the owl toy and the ball. Towards the end, he showed interest in writing using a pen and a paper. Hani started by using one word to request an item. We gradually added more words throughout the session. The prompts were faded quickly as he gradually started to request independently. Today, he used a 4-word sentence to ask for the pen. He said “Give me a pen I want to write!” (It is actually a 4-word sentence in Arabic). The teachers had so much fun playing with him, and his mother was watching him proudly. At the end of the session, we gave Ali a break to play with the cars.

The cooperative sessions are my favorite! Our kids are always full of surprises!



Today we cried…tears of happiness

Our team is always thrilled for cooperative sessions because it is so rewarding to see the fruits of our work when a child says their first word, or learns how to point to things instead of crying and screaming! Today, we had two cooperative sessions that took place between 11:00am and 3:00pm and aimed to put into practice what the parents and teachers learned in Monday’s training about expressive communication and teaching children how to make basic requests about what they want and need.

The first cooperative session had the lovely 2-year-old kids, Amjed and Rajeh, who are both non-verbal. Blowing bubbles was the ultimate euphoria for Amjed, so his mum started teaching him how to point at things using bubbles as a motivator. Besides watching Amjed throwing loud giggles after each time his mum blew bubbles, Amjed learned to independently request his favorite pretzels, water, and other toys in the room. “He is progressing really fast! I am so eager to invest more time in helping him learn other new skills at home before next week’s cooperative session.” Amjed’s mother commented with joy. Similar to Amjed’s mother, Rajeh’s father was really impressed by his child’s ability to appropriately ask for water and wait for his mother to give the bottle to him instead of forcefully grabbing it from his mother’s hand. He also asked our BCBA, Sarah, to recommend some articles and videos about approved methods of helping children with autism learn and interact with their environment.  


The second session was really intense as our team witnessed the tears of joy in Haya’s mother and aunt eyes. Haya’s greatest motivator was also bubbles…and it turned into her first word! Her mum was watching with disbelief as Haya pointed at and said the names of the items she wanted like bubbles, a ball, and play dough. Moreover, the teachers in the group did an excellent job limiting Haya’s access to her preferred items in order to create  many opportunities for her to make requests. Another marvelous thing was noticing that teachers are getting more comfortable handling with children with autism and more understanding of their behavior.

We have more cooperative sessions tomorrow, then next week’s cooperative sessions will be about receptive communication! We are as thrilled as you are to watch more magic happen!



Today We Failed To Fail…And Laughed So Much Our Jaws Hurt

Today’s support group involved what will probably be the best activity of the whole programme: a challenge of ‘trying to fail’. We had the parents and siblings together for their support groups this week but then split them into two teams so that parents were not with their own child/children.

The tasks for our teams were to go out into the local community and: ask 10 people what they knew about autism, ask someone for something that could be used in our programme (no money could be exchanged), and get a selfie with a stranger without speaking. We instructed the teams to collect as many “no’s” as possible. The winning team would be the team that failed the most.

With much apprehension, our families headed out to start their challenge. We had some great selfies, including one with an old local man who for some reason kept thanking the team for taking a photo with him. The activity generated a wealth of useful things that we could use in the programme, including pens, a balloon, a comb and some flowers (these were immediately shredded by the baby of one of our parents).

Dozens of people were asked by our families what they knew about autism and, despite being fairly used to hearing ludicrous misconceptions of autism, we were still amazed at the responses some people gave. One person confidently told our families that there is a higher rate of autism in Saudi Arabia because the people there are oppressed, and this causes them to have autism. Other people said that autism was caused by a specific television programme, Toyour Al-Janna, and that autism was related to children sitting alone all of the time.

The families had a lot of fun with this activity and it was great to see them working as a team, involving their children and enjoying doing something outside of their comfort zone. They commented that they had never tried anything like this before and that it was very unusual for Syrian women to go out and ask questions to strangers.

The teams found that people said yes to their requests much more than they had expected them to-that the goal of ‘trying to fail’ was actually very difficult. This was of course the message of the activity; by expecting people to say no to your requests you often do not take the risk of asking in the first place. However, people generally want to help others; they want to say yes. In a culture in which few people would even tell others that their child has autism, we hope that we have empowered our families to take a risk, be prepared for people to say no, and ask for the help and support that they need. Even one person saying yes could make a huge difference to the lives of our parents, siblings and children with autism.




Tell Me What You Want, What You Really Really Want!

Another great turnout for our training today with near perfect attendance!  Our training topic this week was expressive communication, which focused on basic ways to teach children to request items in their environment.  We started the session by reviewing content from last week’s training on reinforcement and prompting. The parents and teachers attending the session today gave great examples of reinforcement and the important concepts related to how, when and what to reinforce their children for doing.  They also demonstrated what they learned last week in some very animated role play sessions with each other.
Just as in weeks prior, during the initial training the concepts seem to be variably understood by the group, but our reviews have solidified the fact that our parents and teachers are learning the information more thoroughly during the hands-on cooperative sessions that follow the initial training, because they continue to get all of the review questions and examples correct!
We discussed concepts like different variations of expressive communication, ranging from non-vocal gestures like pointing, to vocal approximations to single and multi-word phrases.  We discussed the what, why, when and how behind expressive communication.  The group learned that the less functional communication their children have the more problem behavior they are likely to engage in. They applied concepts learned in previous weeks like prompting and reinforcement to teach communicative skills in their role play sessions.  We taught the group how to identify specific items or actions in their environment that they could turn into learning opportunities for making requests.  The parents and teachers had great examples of things their children are already doing that could be shaped into a more functional form of communication.  We’re very excited for Wednesday and Thursday, when we will finally get kids to tell us what they want, what they really really want!

Allez Allez Allez!

Every day in Mersin is an unpredictable adventure, and this weekend was no exception. We became best friends with our driver, survived a boat malfunction in the middle of the sea in beanbag chairs, made friends with a dog named Sandy, danced on the beach late Saturday night and struggled to get a very catchy song out of our heads.

This weekend, in honor of Kitti’s arrival, we planned a trip to Kizkalesi, which is a castle in the sea about an hour from where we live. As the legend has it, the castle was built to protect a princess who was prophesied to be killed by a poisonous snake. In order to save her, her father build a castle in the sea so that no snakes could reach her. Unfortunately, one day, a snake snuck into a basket of grapes that was sent to the island from the mainland and killed her anyway. From this we learned that sometimes, you can’t avoid the things that are meant to happen, and in spite of our big plans, we just weren’t meant to go parasailing this weekend. In fact, the wind was so strong that we had to wait an hour (relaxing on the beach) for the winds to die down enough for us to go to the castle.


At the castled, we found beautiful ancient mosaics, impeccable views of the sea and the mainland and the unrestricted opportunity to climb on the top of the castle. We spent awhile wandering around the roof and even climbed part way up the flagpole to get the best possible view. Kitti watched us from the castle tower, thinking that standing on the roof was enough of an adventure, but she hadn’t seen anything yet!

We returned to the dock to find that the boat the promised to wait for us had left, and, not knowing when the next boat would be back, we talked about what we would need to survive on the castle island for the next year. A boat did eventually come back to get us…beanbag chairs and all! However, it only made it about 100 meters before it broke down in the middle of the sea. It was a windy day with a choppy sea and we slid around in our beanbag chairs while the boat rocked back and forth. Finally, after what felt like forever, another boat came to rescue us, but because of the structures of the two boats (one named Albatross Club and the other named Albatross Clup), we had to climb through the slats of one boat to reach the other, while rocking up and down. Timing our jumps from the first boat to the second was a true art as we waited for the waves to align the edges, but eventually we made it and made it back to shore.

Even after the uncertainty of our survival at sea, there is nothing we love more than the sea, and so, in the evening, we headed down to the beach for nighttime swimming. Unexpectedly, we made friends with a dog named Sandy who spend the entire evening with us and then followed us most  of the way home. Distracted by Sandy, we abandoned our swimming plans and danced on the beach instead. We started with our traditional “gene dance” and then experimented with dance moves until it was 1a.m. and our phones ran out of battery to play the music. Of course, Amal and Hana wanted coffee at that time (why not stay up all night?) and so we went to a Syrian coffee shop before heading home.


We took Sunday to recover from Saturday’s endless adventures and spent the day relaxing, reading our books, walking on the beach and preparing for Monday’s training. Yet again, we had the perfect weekend.




Looking Back on the Past 2.5 Years

Tonight, we welcomed Kitti, one of our Board Members and the former Lead BCBA and Training Coordinator from our Jenin program site, to Mersin. Kitti was with us when our first A Global Voice for Autism program site launched in 2014, and looking back, it’s hard to believe how far things have come. Today, in honor of Kitti’s arrival, take a look at some of the memories from our Jenin program site. You can watch this video of reflections from our first families, and look back on our Jenin blog at: www.thejeninautismproject.wordpress.com. Enjoy!

(Clearing up myths about autism on Radio Jenin in January, 2014)

(Crafts, games and discussions helped siblings in our Jenin program gain a better understanding of their brothers and sisters with autism while learning strategies for improving their relationships)

(Parents in Jenin learn about evidence-based practices for supporting their children with autism and engage in hands-on activities to improve their understanding)

Check back soon for more updates from Mersin!



Do You Believe in Magic? We Do!

Today, we made slight changes to our cooperative group schedule, and instead of having two cooperative groups, we split the groups into three, two for parents, children with autism, and teachers together, and one for teachers only. In the group for teachers,  we utilized role playing to help them to better understand what it is like for a child with autism to learn a new skill.

At 11:00 am, we had one of the most enthusiastic groups in our program, which included Reema, Ali, their families, and three teachers. This group has perfect attendance so far! The main objective of this session was helping parents and teachers understand how to use reinforcement when teaching children with autism new skills. While observing, parents and teachers continued using ABC data sheets to practice taking data to help identify functions of behaviors. Today they focused on looking at instances where reinforcement was the consequence. At first, Ali resisted the teachers when they approached him by whining and avoiding the tasks the encouraged him to do. Then, one of the teachers discovered that Ali’s greatest reinforcer is blowing bubbles and Ali began listening to the teacher and completing the tasks she requested. Following this discovery, Ali learned how to build block towers and how to do a new puzzle in no time. As for Reema, she was excited to play with every single toy in the room and her mom did a super job reinforcing her using verbal praise every time she accomplished her task well.

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In the second time block, we had two cooperative sessions happening simultaneously. Melissa and Amal conducted the first session with Samer and his mother. We made the decision to run this session without the teachers to give Samer’s mother the chance to gain better understanding of her child’s behavior.. It was awesome to see Samer playing with the bubbles independently without being prompted by anyone in the room. Also, the mother’s improved understanding of her child’s behavior manifested when she started ignoring Samer’s challenging behaviors and reinforcing his good ones. Of course, like other children in the cooperative sessions and our entire team, Samer really loved our unicorn! Next time, we will use it as a huge reinforcer.


During the session with the teachers, we had a blast putting ourselves in the shoes of children with autism. Our cast of teachers performed their roles perfectly and, not surprisingly, enjoyed playing like kids (Who doesn’t?). This method stimulated teachers to be even be more curious and to ask more questions about different kinds of reinforcement and situations they might encounter in the future.


Voila! The second week of cooperative sessions was a great success! Now, we are all ready to run make-up sessions tomorrow morning, welcome board member Kitti to Mersin tomorrow night, and prepare for next week.