Autism affects one in every 110 people worldwide, but despite its prevalence, understanding of the condition in the UAE is minimal. At present there is no government-funded centre in Dubai to provide support for those with autism, so a small group of Dubai-based individuals has taken up the responsibility of educating the public about autism, supporting parents and carers of children and providing schooling for autistic children and young adults.
Most people know autism exists, but not many understand what it is. Autism Spectrum Disorder (as it is technically called) affects a child’s verbal and non-verbal communications, as well as imaginative play and social skills. Although there is no cure, research shows that early intervention and detection can help the individual lead a productive and independent life.
Dubai Autism Centre was founded in 2001 and has since been operating out of a villa. It now cares for 47 students and has 200 more on a waiting list. The ongoing plans to build a new facility have been hampered by the economic downturn – Dhs25 million is needed to complete the purpose-built centre, an amount that the group says they are still a long way from reaching.
‘We do charge a nominal fee for our students, but these fees and donations are our only sources of income,’ says Hayula Mourad, head of business support and communication at Dubai Autism Centre. She stresses that the centre follows international standards by ensuring there are no more than four children to two specialist teachers in each classroom.
To help fund its work, the centre also holds regular fundraising initiatives, such as this week’s Red Tie & Tiara charity ball, taking place on July 22 at the Habtoor Grand Beach Resort. This will give guests the chance to learn more about autism and contribute to the cause while also enjoying a fun night out.
‘I think we have made a difference,’ says Hayula. ‘We started our campaign in 2006 and we’ve made a dent, but there’s still a long way to go. Because of the limited resources and exposure we have, our reach is not that great. We’ve made progress, but we’re a long, long way from our goals.’
Dubai Autism Centre is not alone in its struggle to raise awareness. Stepping Stones, an independent organisation originally founded by Dr Vivian David-Nicolas in the US, now operating out of Healthcare City in Dubai, has long been raising awareness and striving to increase education through collaboration with schools, paediatricians, government departments and other organisations (such as Dubai Autism Centre).
Stepping Stones has also established the monthly Dubai Autism Meet-up Group to provide support for parents of children with autism, and business development manager Deniece Wheeler says this coming September will herald the launch of an educational program within a mainstream school setting in Dubai, comprised of eight students.
The work of organisations such as Dubai Autism Centre and Stepping Stones has drastically improved public perception of autism in the UAE, but this can only be sustained with the support of the public. Dubai Autism Centre hopes more people will follow the lead of Dubai resident Devina Divecha, who organises fundraisers for the Manzil Centre in Sharjah. ‘My brother attends that school and I support them whenever I can,’ she explains. ‘The school was set up in 2005, and they don’t have a lot of ways of raising awareness right now. They normally pass on info through word of mouth and Facebook.’
Devina is currently collecting second-hand books for a fundraising book sale (to take place in September), and is using Twitter to spread the word. The school is also running a fundraising weight-loss programme: people sign up, pay a fee and get into shape for a good cause.
‘We’re always looking for help,’ concludes Hayula. ‘Whether it’s through charity functions, donating toys for play areas, or even finding copywriters and anyone with printing facilities, there’s nothing to stop anyone lending a hand. Everybody can give something – the sky’s the limit.
How you can help
Dubai Autism Centre
This week’s Red Tie and Tiara Charity Ball takes place at the Habtoor Grand on July 22. For tickets, email email@example.com. For more info about the centre, contact Hayula on firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.dubaiautismcenter.ae.
To donate books to the fundraiser for Manzil Centre in Sharjah, email email@example.com.
The group holds a monthly meet-up for parents and carers of autistic children (www.meetup.com/The-Dubai-Autism-Meetup-Group). For further information, email firstname.lastname@example.org
or see www.steppingstonesca.com.