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United Arab Emirates

A Speech-Language Pathologist’s Perspective on Autism in Dubai

As a speech-language pathologist who has worked in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for the last 17 years, I am often dismayed by the increasing number of referrals of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). I work in a centre for children with special needs and also have a private practice. Although I have worked with parents of children with varying special needs for the last 30 years, I feel that parents of children with ASD are somehow different. They seem more committed, more intense and more driven to find solutions and ways and means of helping their children.

Working with these parents, I felt challenged and ill-equipped to deal with their queries and concerns. Although I hold a Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in Speech and Hearing, I felt compelled to study further and went on to obtain a second Master’s degree in Autism from the University of Birmingham (UK).

At that time, from 2003 to 2005, special services in this area were just beginning to emerge. Parents were at the mercy of professionals who visited Dubai for short periods of time. Those who established themselves here advocated their viewpoints and management strategies, which were sometimes not reflective of practices established elsewhere.

Many of the parents would plunge head first into certain fads which made their appearance, whether substantiated or not. Multivitamins, Auditory Integration Therapy, various diets, Secretin, minerals, etc. You name it. They have all done their rounds in Dubai. Parents are willing to assume any cost and make any sacrifice to find help for their child.

Over 75% of Dubai’s population is expatriate and services such as schooling are not available to them. Professional services in the field of autism even ten years ago were hard to come by and inadequate to meet the needs of the growing number of students with ASD.

In the past few years, more professional services have become available, but remain expensive and therefore out of reach of the common man in Dubai. Finding the right school is still difficult as there are few schools for children with special needs. It is hard to gain admission to mainstream schools despite government initiatives in this area. Even if the students do gain admission, there is no access to adequate support services. Most have to contend with the regular curriculum. The onus is on the parents to provide a shadow teacher. There is always pressure to conform and very little allowance is made for their ‘special needs’. All of these issues add to the unbearable strain on parents.

Regarding communication, for most parents speech is usually the preferred communication goal. Some years ago, using sign language became very popular, but met with limited success. At the centre where I work, we assess the child using a transdisciplinary team before we recommend the mode of communication and we have began using Augmentative and Alternative Communication methods in a big way. We are now beginning to use electronic voice output aids as well.

Kamalini Jassem
Speech-Language Pathologist

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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