Two years ago, on his way home from work, Rimon received a phone call from his wife telling him that Yuval, their son who was 19 at the time, ran away from home again, but this time took his phone with him. Rimon called him and when Yuval answered he said: "Dad, it’s amazing here, I’m feeding a giraffe."
Rimon recalculated his route, trying to figure out where Yuval was, while on the line he was asking if he could pet the rhino, and that he saw a sign for the lion's cage. While Rimon hurried to Yuval, he got him to calm down and guided him away from the area of the animals. When he finally got to the safari, he gently asked Yuval what happened, and Yuval answered simply: “I wanted to hug a zebra”.
Even the frightened guard, who was initially angry at the unauthorized entrance, could not remain indifferent to Yuval's sweetness and innocence, and decided to take them on a tour with the jeep to see the zebras- Yuval managed to benefit from his uniqueness as he goes to travel with the zebras. At this moment, Rimon realized that the challenges of autism are so great, that he was willing to give everything up, after 25 years in high-tech, to find solutions and help with the challenges of autism - he wanted to utilize his knowledge of technology, entrepreneurship, and innovation and dedicate everything to finding a meaningful solution.
There are very big differences in autism; there is a very wide spectrum and a large variety of manifestations. People with autism make up about 2% of the population, with 200 000 in Israel, and 200 million in the world. Oftentimes, many people go undiagnosed. Those close to someone with autism are also affected by it which means that there are billions of people in the world whom this issue touches.
Autism is a neurobiological disorder that is commonly described by levels of functioning. At a low level of functioning, a child may need to live in an institution for the rest of his life with close and constant supervision, whereas an example of a high functioning person with autism is Elon Musk.
People with autism experience everything 1000 times stronger, be it their ability to regulate their senses or their sense of loneliness. Autism is an invisible disability - you may not be able to recognize those who are high functioning; they can be completely independent and be a part of all sorts of institutions. In the same breath, many of them fall between the cracks as they don’t know how to name what they feel and experience.
In the case of Yuval, Rimon's son, his autism was apparent essentially since birth, but as parents, they didn't care what the definition was; They only got him diagnosed once his school suggested he have an assistant, which would have required them to get a full diagnosis. And so, Yuval was diagnosed with autism when he was 8 years old. The diagnosis gave them access to tools and advice they didn’t have before, but Rimon says that the best thing you can do is love your children as much as possible and push them as high as possible no matter what. Rimon told us that every day he says to Yuval: “Infinity plus infinity don’t add up to how much I love you” and Yuval smiles his amazing smile every time in return.
This unconditional love means that not only can you not give up on them, but you also have to let them reach for the stars- in Yuval's case, it was a triathlon he did a few months after he was diagnosed. Beyond the physical challenge we all know about strenuous sports activity, Yuval had another completely different set of challenges - sensory regulation. Putting a shirt on a wet body, for example, was a much bigger challenge for him than the cycling itself. At the age of 9, Yuval had already circled Lake Kinneret by bicycle.
Being a parent to a child with autism
When I asked Rimon what it means to be a parent of a child with autism, he shared that first and foremost - life is unpredictable. You don’t know if today will be calm or stormy, you are constantly in a state of uncertainty. The ability to ask his surrounding environment to accept and understand him and to see how they respond is also complex. It’s easy to say nice words about him and his situation, but when people encounter behaviour that they didn’t expect which is not necessarily comfortable for them - that’s the real test.
As a parent, Rimon shares that the very awareness and inclusion of autism gives you a tremendous capacity for acceptance and inclusion even beyond autism - "It's a school for life. I sometimes talk to my wife about what we would have done if we didn't have a child with autism. I would have had a quiet life, but I wouldn’t have the richness and intensity of emotions Yuval exudes - Yuval's force is contagious. He once asked me ‘Dad, how far are you willing to go for me? I just ordered tickets to climb the Kilimanjaro’."
It has been a dream of Rimon's to climb Kilimanjaro for many years. As a teenager, he was a water polo player and an outstanding athlete. In the army, he served in the Givati Brigade and after three years of service in the operational team, he fell and was unable to move his arms and legs. Tests revealed he had 7 herniated discs, one of which was so extreme that it needed to be operated on. At 21, he found himself in an operating room with a 10%+ chance of being paralyzed. After the surgery, in the recovery room, he managed to move his little finger and decided that that was enough to give him the hope to fight and get better; that is what gave him the desire to succeed.
The first couple of years were difficult for him because he had to avoid sports altogether, but after a few years, he was back to competing in triathlons. One of his friends on the triathlon team had a leg amputation, and together they dreamed of climbing Kilimanjaro Mountain, which connected to his promise to Yuval. Rimon describes the happiness of climbing up the mountain with his best friend, "Every step is just pure fun" - after five days they reached the top, but on the way down a big blizzard started. Rimon decided to go down Kilimanjaro on foot - he started running in the snow - he had 50 km and 500 meters to pass in 24 hours. After a few hours, he collapses in the snow from exhaustion, calling for the porters to take him down. In the minutes it took them to get to him, Rimon had a mind shift, so when they arrived, he thanked them for coming and invited them to accompany him on foot - because he wanted to continue. On the way down, every step he took felt like there was a knife piercing his leg, but he was always able to take one more step despite the pain - and then another one, and another one. That was one of the greatest lessons he ever learned in life. He and Yuval are currently planning on climbing Kilimanjaro together.
From weakness to pride
In high tech and startups, the pace and demands are very high, but for Rimon, there is a higher level of intensity and uncertainty at home as well. There were many years that Yuval would come to Rimon’s work to play there.
With a child with autism, one of the parents must be with the child more, or some assistance is needed - Rimon shares that at some point it tore him apart. This was one of the reasons he established HackAutism so that he could spend more time with Yuval.
In the first Hackathon Yuval participated in as an entrepreneur, he gave his pitch and won as the crowd’s favourite - he wanted to create zebra farms because he believed zebras are like children with autism - they are said to be beautiful, and no one plays with them.
Rimon shares that as a parent of a child with autism you can either be against the fact that it takes you out of the comfort zone or go with the flow of the constant change - Rimon chooses to flow with it fully.
In HackAutism, he sees that lots of parents come in with a certain shame, from a place where they feel like it’s a weakness, and through doing and being active participants, they are filled with pride and begin to present themselves as - the father/mother of a child with autism, instead of hiding it; it becomes a source for pride. It's a matter of point of view- the wisdom of life is not necessarily to change reality, but the way we see it.
Autism in the work world
Today, less than half of people with autism are employed, even in positions that they can be good at. Although we noted that each manifestation of autism varies from one person to the next, I asked Rimon - how can we pay attention and be sensitive when we work alongside someone with autism? These were the main points:
- Talk to them at eye level and be aware of their personal needs: some will want to work in the dark, some quietly, and some will want to be with people. It’s important to be aware of their individual needs
- Understand that everything is amplified for them: if the boss shouts, they experience it 1000 times more. If an employee feels loneliness and lack of belonging, that feeling resonates 1000 times greater for someone with autism
- Regularity: Many times, people with autism need things to be done in a very particular way. We need to see when that way is ok and allow it, even if you would have done it differently.
- It has benefits: a lot of people with autism are good at repetitive activities and tasks, which fits in great with the data science industry.
- Pay attention to the judgment that arises in us: we don’t know what’s happening in their heads and have no background, so we should pay attention to automatic thoughts that arise in us, and from this awareness pay more attention and be more sensitive the next time around.
One of their entrepreneurs from the previous cycle, Gilad, the founder of Snowflakes, noticed that his nephew who has autism would always wait until the end of a film and watch the full credits. So, on his birthday, Gilad made a birthday video for him and put in a similar closing caption. It was after this, that for the first time, his nephew, who had never spoken to Gilad, wrote him a thank you message. It was at that moment that Gilad realized that people with autism have different viewing patterns and started analyzing them. This experience led him to realize how to produce a series of filters that are tailored to people with autism, which can be applied to existing content. Today all the content on channel Kan is accessible to people with autism thanks to this product.
For Yuval, thanks to filters that turn news into cartoons, he can connect to more content for the first time. There are also solutions for the visually impaired. And today, from hardware to software, any screen can be customized.
Another venture with a promising solution that won this year's HackAutism hackathon is "Ladaat". The venture was created to diagnose autism at an early age in a much simpler way. The price for an official diagnosis today is between $1000-2000, and not everyone can afford it. They want to build a kit that can diagnose autism by examining eye movements and EEG, which could be done anywhere in the world and at a much more affordable price.
When I asked Rimon what he wishes for himself and HackAutism, he replied that the goal is to do the Hackathon in 200 countries simultaneously at a global level with the support of the UN and to create the opportunity to implement and present the projects worldwide. On a more personal note, he dreams of building a special place for Yuval, with animals, agriculture, and therapy, and for that to happen, he wants to push forward his innovative entrepreneurial activity.