Mother in Moscow Champions Education for Children with Special Needs

May 8, 2012


When Sofia R., 54, first learned her only son had an autistic disorder, she gave up her job as a computer programmer to focus on his education. Despite his high IQ, his behaviorial issues kept him from being accepted to kindergarten or primary school—and there was no special educational framework for him anywhere in Moscow. While homeschooling allowed Sofia to oversee her son’s learning, she knew he needed to develop critical social skills as well so Sofia initiated a computer club for young kids. When he had reached adolescence, Sofia learned about the ORT school in Moscow, a Jewish secondary school with a unique computer studies program she believed would be a good fit for her son’s special abilities and exceptional intelligence. He got in, and she followed him there, and that small step ultimately altered his life—and hers.

In an unexpected career change, Sofia became a computer studies teacher. She quickly found other students in her classes who also had different autistic disorders but were becoming successful programmers. Defying the school’s biggest skeptics (who knew no more about autism than anyone else in Russia’s educational system), Sofia became the children’s staunchest advocate. And when JDC and the Jewish Agency joined forces with UJA Federation of New York in 2006 to create the first Integration Program for Children with Special Needs, she was instrumental in shedding light on the unique needs of children with autism at the ORT school, whom she believed had been stigmatized too long. Given her first-hand knowledge, Sofia was invited to run the program at ORT (one of several institutions participating in the program); she continues to play an instrumental role at the school today.

With JDC and Jewish Agency support, the Integration Program has become a catalyst for research, professional development, and educational outreach on autism and other special needs affecting children and youth. One year ago the first students from the Integration Program graduated from school and several even proceeded to universities. Sofia, in turn, regularly speaks at conferences on congenital topics and roundtables where amendments to national education acts are discussed.

“I wanted to organize the system that I needed as a mother of a special child but that wasn’t available anywhere. I asked myself, how can we develop an inclusive educational program that will allow children to get help but will not lower the general level of education in a school? I knew it was possible,” explains Sofia. “Today I feel huge sense of responsibility for the kids that are in the Integration Program, and for the new kids who come to us every year because there is no other place where they will be accepted. We are their only hope.”

Sixth grader “Andrey,” who is autistic and excels in computer studies, is one such child. He came to the school one year ago and found the understanding, support, and special help he had never had in any other school. Whereas before he thought any misstep would get him kicked out of school, now he feels fully integrated into his class and engaged in what he is learning.

Today Andrey is exceling in his studies and is developing socially. He proudly shares that he recently collaborated with a fellow classmate on a prize-winning project on artificial intelligence for the local scientific community high school. He is also enjoying learning about Jewish values and traditions and his Hebrew is improving each day.

The Integration Project in Moscow serves over two hundred children who have a variety of special needs and incorporates the work of more than 70 professionals and 40-plus volunteers in five different schools. The children receive individual attention from specially trained teachers and a team of on-site psychologists; they also benefit from a collaborative and supportive environment—something critical to their development of social skills and positive self-esteem.

To ensure the highest quality expertise and preparedness for those interacting with the students, teachers learn to work with children with a variety of needs and volunteers receive training to take part in off-site school events, help participants during festive events at the school, and work at summer retreats that JDC also supports for families with children with special needs. The Jewish Agency contributes its expertise to the program’s informal Jewish educational elements, including trainings for volunteers and counselors.

Next year the program will expand to include training sessions for parents and other family members of special-needs children to provide critical emotional support, insight on helpful parenting approaches, and foster improved relationships between the families and educators.

Andrey’s parents are hugely grateful to the Integration program. ”For Andrey and our whole family this program has been a real blessing. It is a true home here; this program gave our son a chance and changed all of our lives.“

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