Mersin 2016 Program Blog

“In Syria a child with autism came to me with chemical burns all over his body. I had to figure out how to communicate with him to get him the help he needed.”

Today, we are excited to introduce you to another one of the passionate and committed teachers in our program, Roaa. Roaa always shows up to our sessions with a smile on her face, ready to practice with the children in her cooperative group. Here is what Roaa has to say about her experiences in the program so far:


Roaa pretends to be a child in a modeling trial with Qiess at a cooperative session.

What are the most valuable things you have learned in the program so far?

The most important thing I learned was direct reinforcement. Some parents or teachers think that if a child does a skill it’s amazing but they didn’t think about how they can maintain it for the future. This training taught me that I can use reinforcement to maintain behavior for the future.

How has your perception of autism changed since starting this program? 

I already had this view that all children can learn including children with autism, maybe because I had some experience working with children with disabilities like my brother. One child with autism moved from my brother’s school to a mainstream school and took the first honor. Although society feels sorry for people with autism and thinks they cannot learn, I have seen their progress and know their potential, like how quickly Hani picked up on 4 word requests.

What is a personal goal you have for the rest of the program?

I was really looking forward to this program because a lot of children who suffered from the war have psychological problems. I want to learn as many skills as possible to support these children. Not only is it related to a population that I might work with, but they might be skills I can use to help my friends and neighbors. In Syria a child with autism came to me with chemical burns all over his body. When I was trying to help him with his burns and injuries I had to figure out what to do and how to communicate with him so that I could help him get what he needed.

Would you recommend this program to other teachers? Why?

I really wish that all teachers could participate in this program because many teachers don’t understand how to motivate and support children. I’ve seen teachers tell kids they are stupid to get the kids motivated rather than encouraging them. A lot of teachers here have fake certificates so they don’t know how to help any children well. This program can give them strategies so that they can better support all children.



Warning: Heart-Warming Photos and Success Stories Here…

This week has passed in a flurry of activity and we have had fabulous successes with our cooperative groups again. Following our training this week we worked on some new skills as well as continuing to build on progress from previous sessions.

  • With Amjed we continued to work on receptive understanding in the form of identifying common objects and it’s brilliant to see him becoming more independent with these. We also started working on basic motor imitation, which is important for play skills. Some of the feedback we gave included ensuring that he is attending to the teacher prior to giving an instruction or modelling something for him to copy. Following on from last week Amjed is now reliably making a vocalisation with his gestured requests, and some of these vocalisations are starting to sound more like the name of the item that he is requesting. This is fantastic progress and it was so great to see!


  • Haya was able to copy gross motor actions such as waving her arms, raising her legs and jumping. She found it harder to copy fine motor actions (such as moving just one finger) and copying an action with an object. It was great to reflect on how far she has come since our first sessions with her. She is able to tolerate following instructions from her mother and teachers much more now and this means that they can provide many more opportunities for learning.
  • Reema’s brother came to the cooperative session this week and he was excited to see what his sister has been learning and how his mother and teachers are working with her. We challenged the group to lead their own session and they did a super job of coaching each other and discussing teaching strategies together.


  • A particular priority for Hani’s mother is that he speaks more quietly; often when he makes a request he shouts this very loudly. We focussed on providing reinforcement (he was particularly motivated by the bubbles and a ball) only when he made a request at a conversational volume and he was able to start doing this very quickly when his mother was consistent with her responses.


After another great week we had so many photos to choose between, we hope you enjoys the ones we’ve chosen to share!


A Chocolate Cake In A Maze

Today we had our support group session for parents and siblings of children with autism. We woke up early this morning to prepare for the activity we planned for the families. Before the session, we continued conducting mid-way reviews with our families. During that time, Sarah prepared a maze for our activity using a long rope and chairs. After finishing the reviews, we had the parents and the siblings blindfolded before entering the session room. For this activity, the challenge was that they had to enter the maze and try to get out of it while being blindfolded. They were allowed to ask for help only by raising their hands. Some parents were going on circles around the maze without finding a way out, so they asked for help. Surprisingly, the siblings were more persistent than their parents. They kept trying for a longer period of time, but eventually raised their hands too. The help they got was that the blindfold was removed and they were guided out of the maze. The message from this activity was that sometimes when we are in a trouble or facing some problems, what we might just need is to ask for help instead of overthinking solutions. To reflect on the activity, Taima said “I thought I was able to go out of the maze on my own, but I realized that I was going in circles so I asked for help”. Muna also said “This is what usually happens when I am at the hospital looking for a specific clinic. I always go around all the hospital’s buildings but when I eventually ask someone about the clinic I am looking for, it ends up being right in front of me the whole time!”


After the activity, the families were discussing how difficult it is to find affordable housing options for Syrians in Mersin. They reported that the apartment rental are always higher for Syrians than Turkish people. Lama, who was looking for a new apartment, stated that the owners of the apartments increase the rent annually for all Syrians for no logical reason. The conversation went on about the different ways that Syrian refugees are discriminated against. Muna reported an incident that happened with her when she was on the bus yesterday. She said: “There was a woman in the bus yesterday staring at me and making very rude comments. I did not understand what she said because it was in Turkish, but my daughter [who learned Turkish] told me that she was calling us cows and bulls. I was very angry but I could not do anything!” According to Muna, the driver of the bus stopped and asked to woman to go down because he thought this is not how Turkish people should treat others. However, Muna said “I know that there are some good people around, but I am afraid that someone would chase me or my children, so I always ask my daughters to speak Turkish when they are outside”, she added: “I might start thinking about putting my hijab in a Turkish way so others would think that I am Turkish not Syrian”. It is sad that the Syrian refugee community is still facing struggles by being discriminated against instead of finding support, even though some of them have been living in Turkey for more than 3 years.

After this long discussion, Lama helped us ending the session on a positive note by surprising us with a homemade chocolate cake to have a small celebration for her youngest daughter, who is turning one tomorrow. Thank you, Lama! And happy birthday to your little pumpkin!


After coming back from the center, Sarah decided to cook us the dinner tonight (I can smell it right now and I can tell that it’s going to be so delicious!)


We Live in a Social World

Today we had a busy day as we combined our training session with doing a review of the programme.  The review involved asking parents and teachers to complete various questionnaires and interviews that they had also completed at the very beginning of the programme. We filmed some of the interviews and got some great feedback.

Our training was on play and social skills and how we can teach these skills to children with autism. We started by discussing how children typically develop play and social skills and how they move through various stages of development. For example, children initially play alone and then begin to play in parallel with a peer, and later learn to cooperate with another child to achieve a common goal.

Next we discussed how play and social skills can be difficult for children with autism, for example, they may not acquire imitation skills that are important for play without specific teaching, and they might experience difficulties with understanding the feelings and thoughts of others, which can make social interactions harder.

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We talked about specific teaching strategies that can be used with children with autism and these included how to teach imitation with objects, breaking play skills down into smaller steps to help us teach them and using video models. As usual our families and teachers were very willing to have a go themselves and practised some of the strategies with each other. We’re looking forward to having further opportunities to practise in our cooperative sessions this week.

– Sarah

Starting The Weekend With Some Kunefe

Today we had a make-up training session for some of our teachers who could not attend the session on Monday. The session was in the late afternoon, which gave us some time in the morning to work on planning, preparing and translating other trainings.

Sarah did an excellent job prioritizing the information and tailoring it to the teachers who specifically work in the school setting. The teachers also came up with great examples on how to apply the strategies in the school setting. One example a teacher gave was on how she uses the different types of prompts to teach students how write the Arabic alphabet, and how she sometimes combines two types of prompts and gradually fades these in later lessons. Different demonstrations were given throughout the presentation about specific concepts like forward chaining and backward chaining to make it easier for the teachers to grasp it.


At the end of the session, we gave the teachers a small homework. We asked them, using the strategies we covered, to write some goals they would want their students to achieve. Also, we asked each of them to write a task analysis for a complex classroom skill. We will be reviewing and giving feedback on this homework during the next week.

After leaving the center, we decided to stop by a café near our apartment to continue our work there while having some coffee and Kunefe.


Now I need to finalize the blog and finish my coffee to go back to our apartment ASAP because Sarah, sitting next to me, is taking a nap now in a very uncomfortable position! (Sorry Sarah!)

So, have a great weekend everyone!


Motivation Is The Key!

We had another busy day of cooperative sessions today. In the morning session, one of the key things that we worked on with Ali’s mother and teachers was ensuring that he was motivated by a toy, activity or social interaction before attempting to teach. Everyone who spent time with him found something that motivated him; he enjoyed bubbles, tickles and, most successfully, playing songs on a tablet. When his teacher started using this he immediately came over to her and she was able to start teaching him to request for it using a vocal approximation rather than just grabbing for it. Ali sometimes finds it difficult to leave his mother to spend time with other adults, but he did particularly well in this session as he was able to build relationships with two teachers who were new to him.

In the afternoon we had an intensive role play session with teachers. I enjoyed this because it meant that I got to act as a child again! We gave each teacher some basic information about the “child”, for example, in one scenario I pretended to be a child who could make some vocal approximations and banged my feet on the floor in order to try and gain attention. We also gave the teachers some goals and then let them work out how best to teach these and interact with the “child”. The teachers had to combine all the skills that they’ve been taught so far and they also practised some new skills, such as using a token board.


Amal did some fantastic coaching in these sessions and it was great to find that so many times when I wanted her to translate something for me she’d already just given feedback on the very same thing. Although I was being taught skills such as identifying different items, sorting objects and responding to social greetings, it was often genuine teaching as I was being taught in a language that I do not know; I’m pleased to say that thanks to my teachers I learnt some new Arabic words today!

– Sarah

What More Could We Ask For?

Today we had our first cooperative sessions after Eid break. We woke up early to start planning and preparing the toys and the materials we need. Sarah did an amazing job this morning adding her own touch on the shakers, which we previously made using water bottles and pasta, by adding some colorful decoration papers inside the bottles to make it more fun for the children.

In our morning session we had so much fun with our little man, Amjed. We worked with him on identifying some clothes items and table utensils, and on practicing imitation skills, while also focusing on his requesting skills. He was very motivated to play with a balloon we filled with pasta. He liked shaking it and roaming around the room with a big smile on his cute face! He learned to identify t-shirt, shorts and socks very quickly. He was also able to identify a spoon, a fork and a plate with minimal help. By the end of the session, he was very motivated to play with the bubbles. Therefore, we decided to teach him to make some vocalization along with pointing to the item to request for it. After few tries, he was reliably making a sound every time he requested the bubbles. His mother, the teacher, and of course us, were so proud of what Amjed achieved today!


Between the two sessions we had our lunch in the center and continued to prepare for our session with Haya. We planned to work with Haya today on expressive communication, requesting specifically, and some receptive communication skills like identifying body parts and identifying table utensils. At the beginning, she was motivated by the Playdoh, the ball and the board marker. She was able to identify body parts independently without prompting. She was also identifying table utensils with less prompting than previously. Towards the middle of the session, Haya was gradually losing interest in everything we had in the room. We decided to try something new, and the language building cards that Qiess made were a brilliant idea. She was independently identifying some types of food and clothes with minimal prompting, and with a lot of adorable laughs each time after getting the correct card! She absolutely loved them! What reinforced her behavior every time she identified the correct card was that she got to take the card and put it back inside the bag. It was a very successful session for Haya.

We couldn’t stop smiling when we came back to our apartment after this amazing day!

Watching the kids’ progress has been one of our best reinforcers!


We Need Fun Time Together

Today we had another support group in which the parents and siblings were all together in one group for the activities. We began by checking in with parents on how they’d got on with their ‘homework’ from our last session. We’d challenged each parent to take 30 minutes for herself in which she does something that she enjoys, rather than something that she is doing for the benefit of her family.

Despite telling us that they never take time to do something for themselves, our parents exceeded our expectations on this challenge! One parent had started taking time every day to focus on herself, and spent that time washing her hair and generally looking after herself. Another mother had gone to the shops that she wanted to visit rather than going to get things for her family. They were grateful that our challenge had given them a reason to find time for themselves and one parent commented “the more I take care of myself the more it will impact on how well I can take care of my family”.

We then moved on to the focus of today’s session; being creative and taking time to play as a family. We gave the families some plastic bottles and some materials that they could get creative with (glitter, pens, tinsel and of course dry pasta). They used these things to design and make something that they could use in a game with their children at home. Some of the bottles were very visual with glitter that swirled around in the water when you shook it, and others were more auditory with pasta that rattled around inside. Everyone had a lot of fun making these and one parent told us “we really need this, we need this fun time together”. We’re looking forward to hearing how they get on playing with their new creations at home.

– Sarah


Back To Training Today!

After the short Eid break, we met our families and teachers again today for our training session. We went to the center earlier this morning to have everything ready by the time they arrive. Printing, connecting the projector, turning on the AC… now to start the session!

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Our training session today was about teaching new skills to children with autism. Some concepts on this training were a refresh of previous training sessions, and some concepts were new. To make the new concepts simple and easy to understand, we provided different examples and demonstrations on teaching different skills like brushing teeth and writing numbers in Arabic.

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Our teachers and parents gave great examples too throughout the training. One of the parents gave an example on how she used the ABC strategy to explain to her husband the correct way of dealing with their daughter’s behavior of ripping papers. After analyzing it, she was able to come up with different ways to intervene on this behavior.

We also had an activity to practice writing behavioral goals. A parent shared with us a goal that she will use on the skill of requesting for her son. As a start, the goal was “requesting for food from me 3 times per day across 3 different days”. She added that once he is able to do this, she will gradually advance it by requiring him to make requests from his father and other family members too. To know that the parents and teachers are applying the concepts they learn in our trainings makes us feel so proud.

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During a 10-minute break in the middle of the session, one of our amazing teachers, Nour Al-Huda, distributed some candy to us and to other teachers and parents for Eid. It was like a mini Eid celebration as everyone in the room was sharing Eid greetings with each other.

After the break, we talked about error-less learning and retraining. One of our teachers related to the concept of retraining with an example on how she gradually lost her English speaking skills after not practising it in Turkey.

We concluded with a brief summary about everything we covered in the session.

After coming back to our apartment and having lunch, we were excited to start preparing for tomorrow’s super fun activities in our support sessions with parents and siblings.

Can’t wait to share it with you!

Stay tuned to tomorrow’s blog!

– Amal

Highlights Of The Mersin Program So Far

Over the weekend I was thinking about my top 5 highlights of the project so far:

  • Parent support groups. These take place once a week (at the same time as the groups for siblings). In these groups it’s been great to see a group of parents of children with autism build relationships with each other. None of them knew anyone else who also had a child with autism prior to joining the programme. They have gradually become more confident in sharing information about their lives and we now see them chatting and joking with each other. We have had lots of fun in these groups and the parents have commented many times that they get to do activities that they don’t usually have the opportunity to do.
  • Interactive training sessions. We try to make our training sessions as interactive as possible and we’ve had such a great group of parents and teachers who are always willing to answer questions, take data on our behaviours, and share stories and examples from their own lives. They have kept us particularly entertained with their excellent role play skills- they are very convincing at pretending to be children! We recently had our mid-point review training, which we did in the form of a quiz show. We were pleasantly surprised by how much they remembered and how competitive they were. The hardest part for us was actually mediating between the different teams in terms of how many points they scored!


  • Expressive communication cooperative session. This was one of my favourite cooperative sessions because we began to teach the children how powerful their communication can be. When the children were motivated to communicate (we found that bubbles were a particularly desirable item) some of the children were making their first ever appropriate communication requests!


  • Evidence based practices in the classroom. Qiess’ presentation for teachers was on how to integrate some of the teaching strategies into a mainstream classroom that may include some children with learning disabilities. It was great to listen to someone so enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his area of expertise. He was actively trying to solve the problems that the teachers were having in their classrooms and ensure that the training was relevant to them; not an easy task when the teachers can have up to 45 mixed ability students in one class!


  • Community outings. These are great opportunities for some intensive work with a parent and child with autism on the things that are most important for them in their day-to-day lives. We’ve been with parents and provided coaching on how to teach their child to behave appropriately when walking in the community and while shopping.

There have been so many highlights so far that it was difficult to choose these five, let’s see what the next few weeks will bring…