For many kids, social media is a way to pass time; for their parents, their kids’ WhatsApp and Facebook obsession can be a nuisance. But for Tommy Traitel and his parents Shay and Shimrit, social media has become a lifeline.
A Facebook-based project serves as an example of how social media can be used to give autistic kids a better life, according to Shay Traitel.
“The schools do a fine job encouraging social interaction, and Tommy’s school in particular does a wonderful job – but they can only go so far,” Traitel told The Times of Israel. “We want to give Tommy a chance to connect on a much stronger level, with many more kids around the country – providing him with a social life that can help him develop his social skills, and give him more experience in dealing with people to better equip him for his future.
“Our Facebook campaign to bring Tommy more friends in the Tel Aviv areas has so far resulted in several play dates for him, as well as support from hundreds of people in Israel and even abroad,” added Traitel. “As far as we are concerned, Tommy is in a war for his future – and he’s winning. That’s why we use a sports reference in our Facebook campaign name — ‘Tommy one, Autism zero.’”
The story began last year when the parents of the four and a half year old realized that their son’s autism was becoming an issue in social interactions.
“To look at Tommy, you would think he is a normal kid, because he speaks and can connect with people, but he definitely falls in on the autism scale with significant issues,” said his father. “Like for most kids diagnosed on the autism scale, communications and connections are among those issues. Most of the kids he sees at school and at other settings have similar issues. We want Tommy to have relationships with other kids, so he can see that there are other ways of communicating.”
Rates of autism, which affects 1% of the population, have jumped over the past 40 years. Scientists are not sure why that is, but since 1978, statistics show, there has been a 600% increase in the number of kids diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), describing the conditions associated with autism, including impaired communication and social interaction. Today, one out of 68 children (one out of 42 boys) are diagnosed with ASD.
Not too long ago, there would have been few options for the Traitels to reach out to others – but with social media, all it takes is an online post to build relationships. The Traitels put together a Facebook page to set up play dates for Tommy with kids from the center of the country (the Traitels live in Tel Aviv), and sent out the link to friends and acquaintances, asking them to share it with their networks.
The response, said his father, was immediate and overwhelming. “We started this about a month ago, and we have gotten hundreds of likes on the page, as well as opportunities to set up playdates in area parks, visits to other kids’ homes, and other social activities with playmates,” said Shay Traitel.
So far, the page has generated about a dozen playdates, “which Tommy enjoyed immensely.” Parents who want their own kids to expand their vistas and meet kids who are “differently abled” responded enthusiastically, both online and in person. But what really surprises and moves the Traitels is the response from soldiers who have invited Tommy to tour their base, kibbutzim who want them to come for a weekend, and even celebrities, said Tommy’s dad.
“Tommy’s page has been shared by so many people now, we are even getting messages from Israelis in the US who want to meet Tommy when they come home for a visit.”
One of those celebrity friends, Iggy Dayan of the classic Israeli rock band Mashina, invited Tommy for a jam session. “Tommy got to know Mashina from the song ‘Night Train to Cairo,’ which features Iggy Dayan on drums,” the elder Traitel said. “Tommy was so into it that there were many special moments.”
The campaign has made an impression on others as well – parents of autistic kids, and people with autism who are trying to cope with the condition. “We are not trying to build an online ‘club’ of autistic kids,” said Traitel. “We are doing this for Tommy, and are trying to helping him build relationships with a wide variety of people – not just kids like him.
“I think this can be empowering not only for parents but for kids as well – especially those who did not have the options that social media is affording us when they were growing up,” he added.
“We have heard from adults who experienced just that, offering to help and recounting the loneliness they felt when they were growing up because they had a hard time connecting to others. In a way, Tommy has become a symbol of beating autism – and that makes him a winner in our book.”