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In new book, well-known psychologist argues that autism is grossly over-diagnosed

book cover
author Shoshana Levin Fox

Book review by TOBY KLEIN GEENWALD Dr. Shoshana Levin Fox has authored a book that will hold you spellbound. Section I is titled “Children.” These first eight chapters are the stories of Jack, Sasha, Annie and others (all the children’s names used are pseudonyms) – children who came into the Feuerstein Institute after having been diagnosed as autistic. They exited with new hope, not only for themselves, but for their parents, who were usually devastated by their children’s diagnoses and needed their own emotional propping up.

The central theme of this book is that autism is grossly over-diagnosed. Levin Fox is a psychologist and play therapist who has worked with children for more than 30 years. In addition to lecturing and giving workshops in North America, Israel and Europe, she worked for 25 years in the prestigious Feuerstein Institute of Jerusalem, founded by the late Sorbonne-educated Professor Reuven Feuerstein.

Dr. Levin Fox lived for nearly twenty years in Canada. She completed an M.A. at Simon Fraser University and a Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at the University of British Columbia and worked for many years as a counsellor in the Special Services to Children program of the Vancouver Association of Neighbourhood Houses. Levin Fox was awarded a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) post-doctoral fellowship, which enabled her to do research and practical work in the field of autism at the world-renowned Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem. Coincidentally, for many years Hadassah WIZO Canada were the prime funders of the Feuerstein Institute’s programs related to autism.

I warmly recommend the book, not just for the moving stories of the children who were salvaged from what proved to be inaccurate assessments, and not only for the intriguing descriptions of the practices of the world-renowned Feuerstein Institute, which Dr. Levin Fox combined with the wonders of the DIRFloortime method. This book should be read for its critical message to parents who have received an autism diagnosis for their son or daughter: Believe in your child. Talk to your child. Keep looking till you find her the best and most appropriate help and hope. Don’t let the “experts” get you down, because a true expert will find the formula to lift you – and your child – up.

Most importantly, do not assume that an expert who gave you an assessment of autism, that may feel like an emotional-cognitive death sentence, is right, and even if the assessment is accurate, and the child is truly autistic, that does not mean there is no hope.
This book is not only for parents of children with autistic symptoms; there is a message here for all parents: Even when there is a diagnosis of less daunting conditions — such as learning disabilities, ADHD, or other emotional, cognitive or developmental challenges — keep shopping till you find the professional who will light the way through the tunnel.

The idea of plasticity of the brain, writes Levin Fox, entered mainstream medicine several generations after Prof. Feuerstein had intuited and created materials and methods based on that reality. “There were no sacred cows for the Professor,” she writes, and decries the fact that “the diagnosis of autism is used as a sacrosanct truism…I have found that the term ‘autism,’ as it appears commonly in the field, in actuality is being used to describe children who suffer from a vast range of communication difficulties, from extreme shyness to psychotic conditions and just about everything in between.”

It is not clear to her how research studies can be reliable, writes Levin Fox, “with the current diagnostic criteria of autism so elastic and with the use of the term so liberal.”
The children whose stories are recounted in this book all made significant, even dramatic, progress. Levin Fox writes that, “Not every child began to speak fluently, to learn at a normative level and to play happily with friends…However, it can be safely and honestly stated that, inspired and mentored by the Professor, my colleagues and I made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of children originally thought to be autistic.” She sees them, as a team, as having saved many lives.

Feuerstein sought to find the child’s latent strengths, and what he called “islets of normalcy.” She explains how “islets of normalcy” are identified and worked with. They include, among other elements, eye contact, human relationships, symbolic play, curiosity, humor and more. “The notion of islets of normalcy helps both parent and practitioner recognize the non-symptomatic behavior [of autism symptoms], the sparks of life and the glimmers of normative functioning within a child’s autistiform presentation.”

There was five-year-old Jack, whose parents came to the Institute and Levin Fox discovered in him an engaging child with a rich imagination. His parents told her that, as he had verbal communication problems, they had taken him to be tested and had been told he was autistic.
Levin Fox emphasizes that helping the parents to understand their children’s challenges, and not to be fearful and depressed about them, is part of the battle.
At the Institute Jack thrived, and left the early diagnosis of autism far behind. The details of the process are in a fascinating ten-page chapter.

She writes about a little girl, Annie, who clearly had developmental difficulties, but, “Each of a child’s tangible, visible symptoms is a world in itself. Like the shoots of a green plant, symptoms have intricate roots.”
Levin Fox gave the parents tools to work with their daughter and continued to follow her progress. When she met her again at the age of six, she wrote, “The sweet, charming, warm, open and communicative child…bore no trace of the detached, imploded, silent, starving two-and-a-half-year-old of years ago.”

Then there was Davie, who had “a longer journey,” and teenaged Joe, who did not make progress to the same extent as some of the other children, but who years later was a happy, functioning adult living in a group setting with other mildly impaired adults. And Mikey, who began to improve significantly when his parents began to talk to him. He still had a long way to go, but Levin Fox writes, “I learned never to give up on a parent.”

There was Max, who had oral dyspraxia, and his lack of speech had been “misunderstood as an autistic avoidance of speech…his story…dramatically illustrates the tragedy of this kind of misdiagnosis.” She cautions that children’s hearing should always be tested; sometimes the non-responsive child is discovered to be simply hearing-impaired.

In Part II, “Theoretical Groundings,” Levin Fox gives the intense and thorough theoretical background to the success stories, which are plentiful. Six more case studies are interwoven in the text to help bring the theory alive.
This section also describes the fascinating roots of Feuerstein’s methods. He began by working with orphan children who had been traumatized after WWII, decided there were flaws in the standard diagnostic tests, and rather than focusing on performance, he focused on the child’s ability to develop learning processes.
“Current studies on brain plasticity…scientifically substantiates what [Feuerstein] proposed two generations ago – that brain cells are modifiable and respond to the stimuli of the environment.” She writes that for Feuerstein it was an “I told you so” moment.
“He understood that human beings can change…when the environment anticipates and promotes such change.” The children mentioned earlier “markedly diminished their autistic-like symptoms…We believed that the potential was there. We sought it. And when we could not see it, we worked hard to elicit it, and even to create new facts on the ground.” The staff saw themselves as warmly interactive mediators.

One of my favorite stories appears in Chapter 15, “A Paradigm Shift,” where Levin Fox describes in great detail the captivating case history of Ben, whom she first met when he was five-years-old. The end of the chapter, with the sub-heading, “Ben’s Epilogue,” describes a chance meeting between Levin Fox and Ben’s parents, many years later, at the luggage carousel in the arrival area of the airport. “Dr. Shoshana!” they called out, and his mother pulled out her cellphone. “The happy faces of Ben and his wife, holding their newborn son, smiled back at me,” writes Levin Fox. “For Ben, the paradigm-shift had indeed been life-saving.”

I found other words to describe the journeys and the miracles of the children portrayed in this book: life-affirming.
And hope.
“An Autism Casebook for Parents and Practitioners: The Child Behind the Symptoms” is published by Routledge, Taylor & Francis and available on Amazon. Read more about Dr. Shoshana Levin Fox’s work at: https://shoshanalevinfox.com/

Toby Klein Greenwald is an award-winning journalist, educational theater director, teacher and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.

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Features

Brothers Arnie & Michael Usiskin’s Warkov-Safeer a throwback to days of long ago

Arnie (left) & Michael Usiskin

By MYRON LOVE Step into Warkov-Safeer on Hargrave in the Exchange District and you’ll feel like you’ve walked back in time to an earlier era. The shelves are crammed full of shoe-related accessories – soles, heels, laces, polish, threads, needles, dyes – and other leather-related needs. 
“There used to be a shoemaker on every corner,” says Michael Usiskin, whose family has operated the wholesaler for more than 50 years.  “People used to keep their shoes for years.  They might resole them ten times.  Now you might have five pairs in your closet – different shoes for different occasions, and buy a new pair every year or two.”
Usiskin adds that “there is no place else like us between Toronto and Vancouver.  When we moved here in the 1970s, this area was buzzing with garment workers and sewing machines. This was a hub of activity. It’s a lot quieter now.”
While the Usiskin Family has been connected with the company for 85 years, Michael Usiskin points out that the company – originally catering to the horse trade – was actually founded in 1930 in Winkler by the eponymous Warkov brothers – Jacob, Mendel and Morris – and their brother-in-law, Barney Safeer.  Larry Usiskin, father of Michael and his brother and partner, Arnie, went to work for the company in 1939, four years after the partners moved the business to Winnipeg (to a location at Selkirk and Main).
The late Larry Usiskin and his late wife, Roz, were leaders in Winnipeg’s secular Yiddishist community.  The Usiskin brothers received their elementary schooling at the secular Sholem Aleichem School at the corner of Pritchard and Salter in the old North End.
“Our dad was maybe 16 or 17 when he went to work for Warkov-Safeer in 1939,” Michael Usiskin notes.  “He would do deliveries on his bike to shoe repair shops.”
He never left.
Michael Usiskin relates that, during the war years, the company relocated to larger premises at King and Bannatyne to accommodate a growing demand for its expanding product lines.
Larry Usiskin bought the business in 1969 – with a partner – in 1969.  It was not a given that either Michael or Arnie would join the family endeavour.  Michael was the first of the brothers to come on board. That was in 1984.
Michael had been working for Videon Public Access TV for the previous seven years.  “I was a producer, editor and camera man,” he recalls. 
Among the programs he worked on were Noach Witman’s Jewish television hour and such classics as “Math with Marty”  and Natalie and Ronne Pollock’s show.
“Dad began talking about retirement,” Michael recounts.   “With budget cuts and lay-offs coming to Videon, it was a good time for me to get out and join Dad in business.”
Michael became Warkov-Safeer’s managing partner in 1995 on the senior Usiskin’s retirement.  Arnie joined his brother in partnership in 1998.
“I had been working for CBC for 17 years as a technician,” Arnie relates.  “A confluence of events presented me with the opportunity to go into the family business.”
Although Arnie bought out Michael’s previous partner,  he continued on at CBC for another four years before accepting a buyout. 
“I went from show business into shoe business,” he jokes.
Today, Warkov-Safeer has customers from Ontario to the West Coast. “Things have changed considerably over the years for our business,” Michael notes. “Our shoe market is now solely more expensive brands. And we also supply a lot of leather and leather-related products for hobbyists.”
He reports that a lot of their marketing has long been done by word of mouth.  “We used to go to a fair number of trade shows, but not so much anymore,” he adds.  “We now have a number of sales representatives throughout Western Canada and Ontario.”
“We’re not high tech,” Arnie points out.  “We have a niche market.  What we sell is a form of recycling – allowing people to look after and fix their shoes.  We see a trend developing in this area.”
While Arnie and Michael Usiskin have no plans to retire quite yet,  they do acknowledge though they are not getting any younger and would welcome someone younger to come into the business who might be willing one day to lead Warkov-Safeer into the future. 

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Features

Winnipeg-based singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni spreading her wings again after being grounded by Covid lockdown

By MYRON LOVE In the spring of 2020, Canadian-Israeli singer/songwriter Orit Shimoni was in the midst of a cross Canada tour. She had started in Vancouver, had a show in Edmonton and stepped off the train in Winnipeg just as the Covid  lockdowns were underway.  Shimoni was essentially stuck In our city, knowing virtually on one.
Four years later, she is still here, having found a supportive community and, while she has resumed touring, she has decided for now to make Winnipeg her home base.
“I really appreciate the artistic scene here,” she says.  “I plan on being away on tour a lot, but I have understanding and rent is affordable.”
Our community also benefits from having such a multi-talented individual such as Shimoni living among us.  Over the past 15 years, the former teacher – with a Masters degree in Theology, has toured worldwide as well as producing 12 albums of original works to date – the most recent being “Winnipeg”, a series of commentaries on her life experiences, wishes and dreams over the past couple of years – which was released last fall.
She has also produced an album of songs for Chanukah.
According to her website, Shimoni expounds on her “truths, her feelings and tells her stories” in venues that include bars, clubs and cafes, coffee houses and folkfests, theatres, back yards, living rooms, and trains.  Her music is described as a potpourri of “bold and raw, soft and tender, witty and humourous,” incorporating  empathy and condemnation, spirituality and whimsy,” and crosses different genres such as blues, folk and country and “speaks to the human condition, the human heart and the times  that we find ourselves in”.
She observes that the inspiration for her songs can come from anywhere, including conversations with others, nature, history, news and her own lived experiences.
In response to the ongoing situation in Israel today, she reports that she is trying to use her music to create positive energy in trying to foster a commonality between people.

Red Door Painting by Orit Shimoni


In addition to adding to her musical corpus while in Winnipeg these past four years, Shimoni notes that she has used her enforced lockdown downtime to explore other ventures. One of those new areas that she has been focusing on is art.
“I have always had an interest in painting,” she says.  While she hasn’t had an exhibition of her painting yet, she has prints for sale and is available for commissions.
“My last two albums have my paintings as the cover art,” she points out.
Another area that the singer/songwriter has been developing over the past four years is writing and performing personalized songs for special occasions.  “I can bring to birthdays, weddings and memorials personalized songs to mark the occasion,” she notes.  “It is another way that I have diversified what I can offer.”
One project she completed last year – with support from the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba – was “singing the songs of our elders” in which she interviewed several Jewish seniors – with the help of Gray Academy students – and told their stories in song. 
Among other performances she has given locally over the past year was a special appearance before a group of Holocaust survivors at the Gwen Secter Creative Living Centre, a self-written, one woman show – called “The Wandering Jew” at Tarbut in November and, most recently, a concert last month at Gordie’s Coffee House on Sterling Lyon Parkway.
Another new area of exploration for Shimoni is animation.  In an interview with Roots Music Canada last fall, she embarked on an ambitious animation project based on her song “One Voice,” which she wrote a few years ago, and which perfectly reflects the anxiety that many people are feeling in these troubled times.
 Last October, she was back on tour – with renowned American songwriter Dan Bern  – after three years away from the road.  She did two weeks’ worth of concerts in American West Coast states and Colorado  – and. in late January, she began a month-long journey that started with shows in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal and stops throughout the Midwest as far as Texas.
She recently returned to Montreal for a show and is currently doing a series of concerts in Germany – with further stops in Belgium, Holland and England.
“It will be good to be back in Europe,” she says.  “I have developed a loyal following in Germany and elsewhere.”
A writer for one publication in Berlin described Shimoni as ‘one of the most interesting singer/songwriters I have met in a long time.”
Here at home, Winnipeg concert promoter Ian Mattey observes that “with each concert, her audience has grown – a testament to the wonderful balance of her lyrical genius, haunting voice and musical talent.”
The singer/songwriter feels grounded – in a good way – in our fair city – and we hope that she will be with us for some time to come.

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Features

A Backwards Family Tree

author Janice Weizman/cover of "Our Little Histories"

By ILANA KURSHAN
The following review first appeared in the February 15, 2024 issue of Lilith Magazine Reprinted with permission.
What does Jennifer Greenberg-Wu, an American-Jewish museum curator working on a reality show in rural Belarus, have to do with Raizel Shulman, a Russian mother desperate to save her triplet sons from being drafted into the czar’s army? The answer spans three continents and nearly two centuries, and it is the spellbinding tale that Janice Weizman weaves in Our Little Histories (Toby Press, $17.95), a novel that unfolds back-wards to tell the story of a family’s history one generation at a time.
Each of the book’s seven chapters focuses on another branch of the family tree that connects Jennifer back to Raizel. We witness the encounter between Jennifer’s mother Nancy Wexler, a young feminist hippie from Chicago, and her distant cousin Yardena, 25 years old and happily pregnant in Tel Aviv in 1968. In the next chapter we meet Yardena’s mother, Tamar, who, while smuggling guns for the Haga- nah, engages in a fateful act of betrayal with a visitor to her home on Kibbutz Hadar, where she has made her home ever since her parents sent her off on a train from Minsk in 1927. In the next chapter we meet Tamar’s distant cousin, Gabriel Schulman, a literature teacher in Vilna, who is attacked in a dark alley in Tamar’s impassioned letters pleading with him to come to Palestine before the situation in Europe gets worse for the Jews. “To be a Jew in Vilna, or Poland, or perhaps anywhere, is to find courage where you thought you had none, to feel it flowing through your veins like blood,” Gabriel thinks in the seconds before he is attacked.
Set one year earlier but thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean, the following chapter focuses on a third branch of the family—not those who stayed in Europe or settled in Palestine, but those like Nat Wexler, a first-generation American journalist in Chicago who is also Tamar and Gabriel’s cousin. Nat understands Yiddish but cannot speak it, and prides himself in his assimilation into American culture; he dreads bringing his fashionable, light-hearted Jewish-American girlfriend to the Yiddish theater with his mother, who is eager to meet her. The penultimate chapter takes us back forty years earlier to turn-of-the-century Belarus, where Gabriel’s father Yoyna is sent on a mission by his own father to reunite with his father’s two brothers; all three brothers were separated at a young age. In the book’s compelling, heart-wrenching final chapter, we meet three triplet boys, one of whom is Yoyna’s father, and we learn the reasons for their tragic separation by their mother Raizel in the shtetl in 1850, where “every year, right around the short dark days leading up to Hanukkah, the boys of Propoisk become scarce…gone for weeks or even months at a time.”
Like A .B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, which follows a Sephardi family back in time, Our Little Histories is a book that demands re-rereading, backwards, from the last chapter back to the first. Connecting threads link one generation to another, and serve as leitmotifs through out the book, like the poem in three stanzas that Raizel Schulman pens just before she parts from two of her triplets so as to spare them from the czar’s army; each son receives one stanza, and the poem is published in a 1914 Yiddish anthology which Yoyna gives to Gabriel, who mails it to Tamar, who donates the slim booklet to the Yiddish library in Tel Aviv, where Yardena and Nancy find it; Nancy will give that booklet to Jennifer to take with her to Belarus for her reality show. When Jennifer’s mother hands her that booklet, she is convinced she has seen it before, and her deja-vu mirrors that of the reader, who will encounter and re-encounter the anthology, and Raizel’s poem, in each of the book’s seven chapters.
Our Little Histories is masterfully constructed, such that the book’s final chapter is both inevitable—it couldn’t possibly have been any other way—and yet impossible to predict. The three branches of Raizel’s family, who make their homes in Europe, Israel, and America, offer us an intimate window into aspects of Ashke- nazi Jewish history—pogroms and Zionism, yeshiva culture and the assimilation, the kibbutz and the shtetl. We have all tragically witnessed how the legacy of persecution has reverberated even in the Jew- ish homeland, a reminder of the unbear- able sacrifices and the acts of raw courage that continue to forge us as a people.

Our Little Histories is available in paperback and kindle on Amazon.

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