Destiny – Working Mom: About autism

When her eldest son was diagnosed with severe autism, Ilana Gerschlowitz – founder and Director of The Star Academy – changed careers to offer a sanctuary to children with the condition and support to their parents


When her firstborn was diagnosed with autism, Ilana Gerschlowitz’s life was turned upside down and even necessitated a change in career from practicing as a labour lawyer to running a school for children with autism. This mother of three and director of The Star Academy opens up about the challenges of having a child with disabilities

“David was born a healthy baby boy with an Apgar score of 9/10. He developed normally and reached all his milestones on time until he was 15 months old.

Only then did we notice a regression in his skills. He wouldn’t respond to his name, wouldn’t maintain eye contact and he stopped playing peek-a-boo. We also noticed he would line up all his toys instead of playing with them appropriately.

When he was diagnosed with severe autism, I had just discovered I was pregnant with my second child. The developmental specialist who diagnosed David told us that he would never go to school, speak, toilet train or hold down a job.

As for my unborn child she didn’t have much information to offer, and merely shrugged her shoulders when I asked about his chances of also being autistic.

We were devastated by the diagnosis. It was difficult to come to terms with what was happening to our perfect child. I refused to believe that nothing could be done to remedy David’s condition.

From the moment we left the specialist’s office I threw myself into research. I was looking for answers. It soon became apparent that there was little information on autism available in South Africa and even less support for parents.

Through my research I stumbled across a book called Children with Starving Brains written by an American specialist clinician Dr Jacquelyn McCandless. The book seemed to be describing David’s regression into autism and it also explained the medical pathologies that could have caused his autism.

We contacted Dr McCandless, who had a two-year waiting list, and begged her to help us. She agreed to run tests and thereafter we were able to begin David’s treatment – following a medical treatment protocol that is widely practiced to treat children with autism.

We learnt that David was suffering from immune dysregulation and severe bowel inflammation. He also had various nutrient deficiencies. Dr McCandless also found he was suffering from fungal, bacterial and viral infections. As we started treating his inflamed gut and the other pathologies, we started to slowly tick off the autistic symptoms.

Over the years we travelled to the US regularly to attend conferences on autism and learned that it is a treatable condition. I took David to see a specialist speech therapist in the States. The therapist works with children with speech motor planning difficulties and follows a technique called Prompt, which restructures oral muscular phonetic targets.

It became apparent that autistic children need educational and medical intervention. I went around Johannesburg looking for a school for David but I would come home in tears. I knew he could learn but I struggled to find the right education programme for him.

We home-schooled him and even contemplated emigrating to the US when he was four years old to ensure that he was afforded a good education and the quality of life he deserves.

Fortunately we changed our minds and decided instead to open a school for children with autism in Johannesburg – The Star Academy. We wanted to help other parents who were in a similar situation to ours.

We followed a model from the one of the schools we visited in the US. This allowed me to educate local parents on treatment options and also gave me an opportunity to work closely with David and oversee his progress.

Five years ago I hosted the first Challenging Children Conference with some experts from the US, including Dr Bradstreet and Dr Doreen Granpeeshes from the Centre of Autism and Related Disorders (CARD).

The idea was to bring hope to parents by letting them know that despite there being no known cure for autism, children living with autism can improve drastically and become functional members of society.

I have personally seen an enormous improvement in David’s life since he’s been on CARD programme and today he’s an 11-year-old boy who communicates, excels in gymnastics and rock climbing and plays the Nintendo Wii like any child of his age.

The first step the programme taught him was communication through a device that has voice output, and it also worked on the behavioural challenges he used to face.

Our journey with David prompted us to establish the Star Academy that provides Applied Behaviour Analysis services to children with autism.

Besides providing a safe environment for children with autism to learn and a chance to reach their full potential, we also host conferences where we get to share some of the latest research with parents on the subject of autism.”

The Star Academy now has centres in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. Their workshop services department works with children from around South Africa and Africa including Zimbabwe and Ghana.

For more information on autism and The Star Academy visit www.thestaracademy.co.za.

The Gerschlowitz’s second son is a healthy nine-year-old, as is their third child, who is almost two years old.