Autism in the UAE, Part II

Continued from Autism in the UAE, Part I. The main challenges that people on the autism spectrum and their families face may persist even after ...

Apr 18, 2015

Continued from Autism in the UAE, Part I.
The main challenges that people on the autism spectrum and their families face may persist even after awareness has been raised. In the UAE, a child on the playground exhibiting behavior perceived as abnormal can still be met with discomfort.
“[People in society] don’t know that the behavior is due to the child being autistic,” said Ghada Massis, a mother of a child with autism living in Abu Dhabi. “So we faced a lot of problems with people wherever we went — but it was not [due to] bad intentions.”
Dana AlHosani, a freshman who has volunteered at the organization Future Centre for Special Needs and worked with children in the UAE who have autism, also mentioned the stigma surrounding autism spectrum disorder, but added that social perceptions have improved markedly over the years.
“People are starting to understand,” said AlHosani. “But I still feel like if you take a special needs kid who looks physically like they are classified as special needs ... Then a lot of people are going to [give them] looks, which is maybe because they are not used to it.”
When speaking to children with autism, AlHosani stressed that it is important not to look down on them because the kids feel the condescension.
“One needs to be patient," she said. "As the way they understand information is quite different from the way we understand information."
Massis spoke about her own son’s photographic memory and sharp knack for observation, recounting one instance in which he took her to a food court that he’d been to only once.
"If he goes once to a place, he remembers it,” she said. “Autistic kids know everything around them, but some don’t know how to communicate.”
The language proficiency of a child with autism spectrum disorder depends on their degree of social development; some children are verbal and communicate their needs, but still may have difficulty adapting in a community.
About 40 to 80 percent of children with autism have difficulty sleeping, and for this reason, Massis and her child go outside in the evenings for an activity. One main theory on why children with autism may have sleep disorders is that they sometimes cannot understand the social cues or rituals that signal bedtime, and consequently have problems falling asleep.
“We do one hour of activity every day,” said Massis. “Autistic kids have a lot of energy, which they have to take out of the body. Many parents go out for an hour of activity [with their child], and this is done for their kids to sleep since autistic kids sleep very little ... About 3 hours at a time, even.”
“We do activities such as coloring, working with playdough, brushing his teeth and washing hands. It’s not easy to teach them how to do that,” said Massis.
Seeking education for children on the autism spectrum can be difficult, as only some mainstream schools in the UAE accept children with autism.
“[The schools] are not prepared,” Massis said. “The main reaction from schools is for teachers to refuse our child. Another thing is that [most schools] do not have special programs or a curriculum. [There is] nothing available for our kids, no activities, and that is why education for the people, especially for the teachers in mainstream schools, is important.”
Many autistic children are on gluten-free and casein-free diets, and Massis said that, due to difficulties in obtaining appropriate food in Abu Dhabi, she spends a lot of time preparing food for her son.
It is the social stigma, however, that poses the most problems.
“Not a lot of people recognize [the necessity] of opening a school for people with autism. Once these kids reach a certain age, there is no other school they can go to,” said AlHosani.
This leads to adult unemployment, an issue faced by many adults on the autism spectrum and the theme of this year’s World Autism Awareness Day. A lot of the autism centers in UAE are at capacity. This, coupled with a lack of vocational programs, pushes the need for mainstream integration of those with autism spectrum disorder in the country.
Siba Siddique is a staff writer. Email her at
gazelle logo