Reshaping the way the world views autism – one family at a time

20-year-old Plymouth resident travels to Palestine to teach families about the developmental disorder

Like most of us, Plymouth resident Melissa Diamond, 20, has a dream. Her dream most recently brought the Wayzata High School graduate across the globe to Jenin, Palestine, located 25 miles south of Nazareth.

There she put a foot down on a path that she hopes will lead her to her ultimate goal – to be a peacemaker in a war-torn part of the world.

Melissa Diamond, center, stands with mothers Aseel, left, and Fatima. Diamond, of Plymouth, founded A Global Voice for Autism, which currently finds her in Jenin, Palestine, working with families with autistic children. (Submitted photo)

Diamond is working toward a degree in peace and conflict resolution, a major she designed at the University of Richmond in Virginia. With a minor in healthcare and society, women and gender studies, Diamond’s latest project is truly inspiring.

Through A Global Voice for Autism, an organization she founded, Diamond has taken a four-member team of therapists from the University of Richmond to Jenin to introduce Applied Behavior Analysis to families of children with autism.

Diamond said the population in the region has yet to gain a full grasp of the developmental disorder that affects normal development of social and communication skills.

“Children cannot control where they are born,” she said. “And I realized that, simply by virtue of where they were born, children with autism in the West Bank were being denied access to learning and quality of life.”

The inspiration

Diamond said she’s always had an interest in volunteering. In eighth grade, she worked with the Special Olympics and kept it up through her high school years.

During junior and senior years of high school, she interned at the University of Minnesota’s Autism and Neurodevelopment Clinic.

The issue of autism became personal to her, she said, when she met a young woman living in a Hammer Residence in the Twin Cities. The young woman had autism and through volunteering, Diamond developed a special relationship.

“My volunteering quickly transformed into a close friendship, and she has become a sister to me,” Diamond said.

In May 2012, Diamond embarked on a trip to Israel through the University of Richmond designed to explore the importance of faith in the country and how different religions may be able to coexist peacefully in the Holy Land.

On the trip, Diamond’s student group visited the Princess Basma Center for Disabled Children – an organization in East Jerusalem that serves Palestinian families from East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

While at the center, Diamond met a family who had a daughter diagnosed with autism.

“Through speaking to this family, I learned about the lack of service available for children with autism,” Diamond recalled. “Public schools will not accept these children, and most centers simply provide a babysitting service.”

The family’s experience struck a chord with Diamond.

“I immediately thought of my friend and realized how different her life would have been had she been born in the West Bank and not had access to the resources she has,” she said.

The project 

Spring 2013, Diamond won the top award from the Resolution Project, given at the Clinton Global Initiative University in St. Louis. Chelsea Clinton awarded Diamond the prize of $9,000 in seed funding to begin A Global Voice for Autism – Jenin Cooperative Autism Project.

Hala, a child with autism, plays with sensory toys during a therapist pairing session. (Submitted photo)

In the first weeks of January, Diamond and her team – consisting of board certified behavior analysts Kitti Robinson and Sarah Boone and behavior specialists Katrina Walker and Daniel Johnson – laid the groundwork and began hosting Applied Behavior Analysis sessions in Jenin.

Two training sessions are held each week and families travel as long as two hours to attend the meetings. As of mid-January, 16 families had enrolled, with more joining all the time.

A four-hour session is held each Saturday morning for parents and siblings of children with autism. The sibling support group includes games and discussions while the parents cover theory and concepts of Applied Behavior Analysis prior to a parent support group.

On Mondays, the parents bring their child with autism to the session. For the first hour, children are allowed time to acclimate to the session environment. The subsequent two hours involve parents and children splitting into groups with therapists to work on different behavior concepts.

For instance, one week the groups worked on reinforcing a child immediately for requesting items or for complying with one-word instructions on tasks the parents knew the child was capable of doing.

“Our first week of training has gone better than I ever imagined,” Diamond said.

In future weeks, mothers will swap children to work on tasks that will help the autistic children become accustomed to different individuals.

After completion of six differing training units, all time at the training sessions will consist of mothers working with other children under therapist observation.

The idea is that in March as Diamond and her team are preparing to leave Jenin, the mothers from the first training session will be capable of leading a second round of training for new mothers in the community.

The goal is to foster a cycle of learning and teaching that will continue.

“By simply providing services to the people in communities, they remain reliant on their provider,” Diamond said. “But by providing communities with the skills and infrastructure they need to handle their own problems, the change becomes sustainable and families of children with autism in the community are empowered.”

The reason

Diamond said the Jenin community has been very friendly and welcoming. The town consists of 39,000 people within the city limits and around 350,000 within the Jenin Governorate.

“Nonetheless, there is still a high stigma surrounding autism in the Jenin community,” she continued. “This leads many families to hide their children with autism from friends, community members and extended family.”

Many view the disorder a result of bad parenting.

At the first support group meeting, the team learned that some families beat their children if they display behaviors associated with autism.

The misconception surrounding autism isn’t unique to Jenin; it’s a global concern.

Plymouth resident and Wayzata High School graduate Melissa Diamond prepares toys to be utilized in a training session for families with autistic children in Jenin, Palestine. (Submitted photo)

“The prevalence of autism continues to rise year after year and there are many nonevidence-based treatments being implemented around the world,” team member Robinson said. “Raising awareness of autism and the evidence- based treatments that do improve the symptoms, specifically ABA, increases the likelihood that children will receive effective interventions.”

Team member Johnson said it’s crucial to teach methods properly and overcome false perceptions surrounding autism.

“It’s important because, with the right support, individuals with autism can learn to overcome their deficits and become valuable, contributing members of society,” he said.

“Seeing families acquire that hope when they learn that their child with autism can learn and make progress, not at some far-off point in the future, but starting now, is the reason I do what I do,” Diamond added. “Sometimes what people need is so small and yet having it can make an immeasurable difference.”

The future

Diamond’s team will leave Jenin on March 31, but they intend to follow up with newly formed sessions via Skype calls.

Diamond said she’s optimistic about the future of the group because the mothers currently enrolled are showing strong enthusiasm for their work – many have requested additional sessions throughout the weeks.

In the future, Diamond hopes to expand A Global Voice for Autism so that it may be implemented worldwide through a “franchise-like” system for simultaneous expansion in multiple locations.

As for Diamond, she said she’s not sure what career path she wants to pursue, but she does have strong interest in working with individuals with disabilities and refugee populations.

She continued to muse that life is unpredictable and that, when an opportunity arises, she’ll know what’s right.

“My dream is to be a peacemaker,” she said. “I don’t just mean this in the political sense. But in the sense that, in my daily life, I can help people learn to value their differences, and bond over their similarities.”


Contact Brian Rosemeyer at [email protected]