While growing up in the Middle East, I rarely saw people with disabilities. Not that they didn’t exist, but society’s judgmental and sometime harsh gaze forced most disabled people to be isolated. To this day, physical and mental disabilities are viewed as stigmas in the Arab world. Their guardians keep them hidden from view out of fear of being rejected or ridiculed.
On April 2, 2008 as the UN officially marked the first World Autism Awareness Day, I was pleasantly surprised to see parts of the Arab world pause and try to understand what Autism is, how to diagnose it and how to help those who suffer from the disorder.
The Dubai-based channel, Al-Arabiya, led the coverage with its anchor revealing a little bit of shock the staggering numbers: "One in 160 children are diagnosed with Autism in Saudi Arabia alone," she said. Al-Arabiya featured reports on autism centers around the Middle East and young lives affected by the disorder. A reporter said, "Young Rashed and his family know the challenges all too well. So many children miss the chance at a better life because they get the wrong diagnosis which leads them to isolation and a condemned life as misfits."
Specialized websites and blogs were very busy throughout the Arab world.
The Dubai Autism Center asked for donations through a moving video explaining that children with autism are different and yet very much a part of society and in need of help.
The Autism Center in Lebanon recommended books on early intervention and how to communicate with the autistic population.
From Kuwait came an announcement about an upcoming therapist training program. And from Saudi Arabia, an explanation of autism in pictures and poetry and a thank you note that says: "It is my world awareness day. Thank you for those who remembered me and joined me in celebration!" (see attached)
The State of Qatar boasts a major center for disabilities and autism. The first lady of Qatar was instrumental in establishing World Autism Awareness Day. Yet, on this day, the State's flagship network, Al-Jazeera, stayed away from the subject.
Back on Al-Arabiya, a young girl named Ghalia (which means precious in Arabic) stole the spotlight. Her profile featured her lovingly kissing her father and reading with her mother.
Ghalia’s mother said, "It is very hard for us now, but I have no doubt that because of her, we will earn paradise."
But in the here and now, long before paradise, a postcard on a Saudi website asks for compassion, love and opportunities for people with autism. It simply says "I need you to understand me and accept me. I am autistic and I am human."
-Octavia Nasr, Arab Affairs Editor
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