April 2nd, 2008
08:15 PM ET

Autism... in the Middle East

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 

Check out these links to see more about autism in the Middle East. 

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Filed under: Autism • Octavia Nasr
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Bonnie Lund

    I am a school administrator with many children on the autism spectrum. I watched your show, "Live with Amanda" last night and so appreciate you sharing this "mysterious" world with the public. Since autism diagnosis is growing at an alarming rate, maybe if more of the public were more aware of the variances in this affliction, more money for autism research could be raised.

    April 3, 2008 at 1:53 pm |
  2. Cheryl Kantor

    Having worked and provided assistance and therapy to children and adults with autism, I am still disheartened that we do not seem to be any closer to understanding the Autism "trigger". I have always found this disorder to be very complicated and sadly fascinating, as there are as many types and degrees of affliction as there are people diagnosed with this disorder. I agree that early diagnosis along with intensive, regular behavioral therapy is the answer to diminishing the long-term aspects of Autistic Spectrum Disorders. Of course, most people cannot afford this type of intensive therapy which is very sad for these children and their families. Medical plans need to start covering at least some of the costs of this treatment, so that these children have more successfull outlooks for their future. Unfortunately, I am very concerned that since I started working in this field the inciden of Autism has gone from about 1:1500 births to as many as 1:150 today! We are in a crisis situation, and truly need to find out as much as we can abou the causes and treatments for these children while still young and treatable. We need to ALL care about this disorder as it does really impact us all eventually.

    Cheryl Kantor
    Cochrane, AB

    April 2, 2008 at 10:40 pm |
  3. Sally Leonard

    Do doctors in the Middle East vaccinate their patients on the same crowded schedule as American doctors? It seems like overload to me. 36 vaccines in a very short time?Too much for a young immune system. I successfully raised 5 children (now between 45 and 54 years)If my great grandchildren needed shots I would certainly advise a revised schedule.

    April 2, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  4. Maya

    It is heartbreaking to see these kids. I am not sure if we will be ever able to find a cure or know if it is vaccine or something else. We ceratinly hope so if mankind is capable to go to space. The thing that we can try to do is leave them in this world with some good freinds and provide them with opportunities to develop social skills by having lots of playdates uisng tools such as the one developed by bibadee.com

    April 2, 2008 at 10:09 pm |
  5. Arizona

    All the world needs to cherish and protect its children. Every soul counts in our quest for peace. The seeds of peace are planted within a family that struggles with a disability such as autism. It gives us the opportunity to nurture and grow – sometimes against all odds – and, to help to bring about greater awareness and acceptance. It happens on an individual level, a family level, a school and community level, and, eventually our hope is on a global level!

    I believe this holds true for issues other than disability, but where there are misunderstandings and misconceptions about people. Whether it be a disability, a religion, a race, an ethnic group, an occupation, a gender issue, whatever. . . We all need to be more compassionate. In the end, we all benefit!

    It's a very small planet, and it's all we have!

    April 2, 2008 at 9:32 pm |
  6. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Jeepers! 1 out of every 160 children are born with autism- That seems like an awfully high ratio.
    Dubai no doubt, will become very influencial throughout the entire world very soon. It seems like a big step to get their news coverage on the topic.
    Hopefully the Muslim world will find a way to move forward with the rest of the world and not resist enlightenment, as they seem to have been doing.

    April 2, 2008 at 9:19 pm |
  7. Judi Smith

    All the more reason we in the united states of america need to educate the world and our selves. Sincerely, Judi Smith

    April 2, 2008 at 8:29 pm |