SECRETS of the FOOD INDUSTRY

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WOMAN TO WOMAN: ONE-ON-ONE WITH SARI COHEN, MS.SP.ED





Sari Cohen, a Special Education teacher at Barkai Yeshivah, is a SEIT, a P3 provider, a Title 1 teacher, and a Wilson Certified reading specialist. But she wasn’t always this qualified. Until about  ten years ago, Sari was a young married mother of two working in a Hebrew day school in the late afternoons. Then, at 16 months old, her son, who is now 14 years old, was found to be on the Autism Spectrum.

“The exact diagnosis was PDDNOS – Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified,” says Sari. “I knew something was wrong because he wasn’t functioning like other children.” He would regularly flap his arms and spin around in circles. He didn’t respond to his name when called, and was indifferent to other auditory and visual cues, like hand gestures that indicated he should come closer, or loud noises that were meant to get his attention. “It seemed like he was looking through me, not at me,” says Sari. “He never went through a babbling stage and he didn’t speak on time. I knew something wasn’t right.”

Despite these signs, Sari’s pediatrician was unconcerned. He thought she should keep up with the early intervention services he was receiving and then reevaluate the situation when he reached three years of age. But Sari wasn’t content to let things be. “I had this gut instinct,” she relays. “I was a mother and a mother knows best.”

As a young 21-year-old who really didn’t know the terrain, Sari called Rachel Shamah who then worked for SEARCH of Sephardic Bikur Holim. In no time, Rachel got her an appointment with Dr. Cecelia McCarton, who specialized in Autism Spectrum disorders. “She diagnosed him on the spot and got him enrolled in a school that specialized in teaching children on the spectrum,” Sari remembers. Back then, the Board of Education didn’t substantiate this diagnosis in such a young child, so the case being solved so soon was an incredible stroke of good fortune. “I was lucky,” says Sari. “Because he was so young, it was thought that his brain was adaptable. I was told that his condition could get worse, or it could get better with ABA therapy.” His brain is a sponge right now, the doctor told Sari and her husband. Up until three years of age the brain could be retrained – but the ensuing months would be critical in making that happen. The amount of progress their son made would affect him for the rest of his life. He’d come out either thriving in mainstream society or beset with a lifetime of difficulties.

 Sari immediately got her son the help he needed. “There were therapists in and out of my house all days long,” she recalls. And Sari did more than welcome them past the threshold. From the outset she made sure to be actively involved. “I sat and I watched,” Sari says with intensity. “I wrote in notebooks, I asked tons of questions, I learned how to perform the exercises with him and I took care to speak in a very particular way, so as to elicit the responses I wanted from him.”

Perhaps because Sari took the situation so seriously, continuing on her own the work that was being done during therapy, her son progressed tremendously. At three years of age, he was able to talk and socialize – and the school for autistic children that he was in was no longer the right place for him. So Sari took him back to Dr. Cecelia McCarton who re-diagnosed him. He no longer had Autism. He simply had an expressive and receptive language disorder. Her recommendations? Speech therapy and full integration into a normal environment.

What a happy turn of events! Sari enrolled him in a dual program – a UPK nursery curriculum from 9:00-12:00 and, afterwards, took him to Reach for the Stars, where he received speech and occupational therapy. By the end of the year, he’d gotten to the point where he could leave the auspices of Reach for the Stars completely and simply attend his UPK program with a shadow. And at four years old, he’d come so far that he was accepted into a mainstream community school.

This June, Sari’s son graduated from that elementary School, never having needed a special education environment. A well-liked boy with many friends, he plays on various sports teams and will attend a mainstream high school in September.

To call Sari’s son a success story would be an understatement. The twenty months of hard work that began when he was diagnosed had resoundingly positive effects – and changed Sari’s life forever. The practices that had best helped her son were ingrained in her and she felt fully at home in the special education world. When it came time for Sari’s family to become a two-income household, the decision of what kind of career she would pursue was obvious. “You can’t get my life experience from a textbook,” quips Sari. “I had already learned so much – now I just had to build on it.” Sari knew she would do it with enthusiasm, too, because she was so fascinated by and indebted to the field.

Sari began courses at Testing and Training International (TTI). Started by Raizel Reit in conjunction with Daemen College, it was a year and a half long program, doled out in eight week increments from 9:00-5:00 on Sundays. “It was intense and required a lot of help from my family, but everybody was very supportive,” says Sari. At the time, her husband worked on Sundays, so her mother and mother in law took responsibility for her children. Her kids rooting her on from the sidelines as she progressed in her studies. 

“I enjoy this,” says Sari simply. “I went through such an ordeal and now I want to help other people so badly. These days, people push their worries under the rug and think they will go away, but they don’t go away. You need to take care of any concerns you have when your children are young – when there’s still time to retrain the brain. When they’re older, it only gets harder.”

These days, Sari spends her days as a P3 provider and Title 1 teacher at Barkai Yeshivah. After school, she tutors kids privately using the Wilson method of teaching reading.  Sari excels at what she does precisely because she has such sensitivity to how these children learn – a nuance she first gained from parenting her son. “You need to have a lot of patience because you won’t see results overnight,” Sari says of the temperament she cultivated. Openness is also important, whether as a parent in this situation or a teacher. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she insists. “Go online, research, talk to other people about it.  Be loving, be willing to learn new things, and keep a smile on your face.

Children who develop differently need this sort of effort from us if any progress is to be achieved. “They don’t learn the same way we do,” Sari declares. “You have to put yourself down on their level and work with them from the ground up. Kids need to feel good about themselves. If they’re failing because they can’t learn, they will become helpless and won’t want to learn. And then you’ll lose them! That’s why it’s so important to get them the help they need when they’re young.”

Of course, Sari would never wish her son’s developmental problems on anyone. “When my son was going through his difficulties, it was devastating. It was like someone took my heart, threw it on the floor and stomped on it over and over again. It’s horrifying to have a child who is not able to tell you ‘I love you,’ who is not able to understand you.” Sari remembers feeing helpless, broken. Who do I turn to? she wondered. Who do I call? Because she doesn’t want any parent to feel the kind of blind uncertainty that she did, she tries sincerely to be a resource for those with special needs children. She believes without question that her son’s original diagnosis and her career in special education were divinely orchestrated. “I think Hashem did this so that I would go down this path,” she says firmly. It was only through mothering him that Sari realized she had what it took to help children. “I love what I do and I love helping other parents because I know it feels like,” she says.

To those interested in pursuing the field of special education, Sari is effusive in her praises. “It’s the most fulfilling job ever,” she proclaims. She visualizes the kids that she works with while saying, “the progress that they make, the smiles on their faces when they see they can do it by themselves, and the feelingyou get when you see they don’t need you anymore – it’s wonderful. You feel like a million bucks, just overjoyed!” As Sari points out, Special Ed is a great field for newly married girls or young mothers, because there is no set schedule; you can make your own hours, working as little or as much as desired.

We thank Sari for sharing her incredible story with us. She can be reached via email at Saricookiec@aol.com and is happy to provide further input to those who ask for it.