Gulf Autism Centre, which has been operating in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen area since 2005, informed the parents of its 45 students in April that it will close permanently on June 22. Image Credit: Sarvy Geranpayeh/Gulf News

Abu Dhabi: One of the first autism centres to open in Abu Dhabi is closing down this June, leaving parents and children at the facility shocked and devastated.

Gulf Autism Centre, which has been operating in Abu Dhabi’s Al Bateen area since 2005, informed the parents of its 45 students in April that the centre will close on June 22 for good. The centre also has around 40 staff members who will all need to find new jobs.

Speaking with Gulf News, the founder of the facility cited personal and financial reasons for the closure.

“I opened this centre when there was almost nothing for children with autism in Abu Dhabi. Closing it has been one of the most difficult decisions that I have had to make,” said Mariam Al Mazroui, the founder of Gulf Autism Centre.

“This is not a decision I made overnight, I have been thinking about it for the last two years,” she added.

Al Mazroui said there were a number of reasons for the closure but it came down to two main points for her. Firstly, to spend more time with her 23-year-old son, Ahmad, who has autism and has grown out of the programmes available at the centre and secondly, financial challenges. She said there were also other personal reasons which she could not share.

“This is the time for me to be with my son. He has nowhere to go, no special college, no centres, nothing. I want to try and focus on developing something for him,” she said.

Al Mazroui founded Gulf Autism Centre 13 years ago due to lack of facilities for her son and other people with autism in Abu Dhabi. She said today she faces the same challenge as she did when her son was a child, prompting her to try and focus on developing a programme for him. The centre has also been facing financial difficulties which Al Mazroui put down to the rising costs in Abu Dhabi as well as hosting children from families who did not have the means to pay the centre’s Dh45,000 fees in full or in instalments.

According to Al Mazroui, in the recent years, she has spent between Dh200,000 and Dh300,000 of her own money every year to keep the centre going. The centre’s management also confirmed that there were at least 12 students, out of the total of 45 students, who had not been able to pay their fees this year.

Gulf News reported the centre’s financial troubles last May as its management pleaded for the public to sponsor children whose families could not afford to pay the tuition fees. Al Mazroui renewed her pleas for people to support those families so their children can continue receiving the education and support that they require elsewhere.

Al Mazroui said while she understands that majority of centres are operating at full capacity, she hopes that they can step in and enrol the children from Gulf Autism Centre.

Parents that Gulf News spoke with said they were devastated to hear the news as the centre’s “loving” staff had been like family to them and their children. They also feared that they would not find a new facility for their children at such late notice.

“I was so shocked when we first found out. It is very sad. My daughter has been at this centre for 10 years and she loves the staff here, it will be difficult for her,” said Dima Radi, mother of a 12-year-old girl with autism.

“I wish we had known earlier in the year so we could have more time to find a new place for our daughter,” she added.

“They understood our situation and let us pay when we could, I don’t know how we will manage somewhere else,” said a parent who did not want to be named as to not embarrass her child.

“Until now, we have not managed to find another centre. I really hope someone can start a new centre or someone in another facility can offer our son a place,” said Ayman, mother of a 12-year-old boy who has been at the centre for nine years.

“What can we do? We like the centre, we like the staff but there is nothing we can do. I really hope we can find a place for our child,” said Sahar, mother of an 11-year-old boy with autism.