Every child should get the opportunity to lead a happy, fulfilling life. Not every child is the same though, with some facing challenges that can range from physical, cognitive or mental issues to developmental disorders and learning disabilities.
Fortunately, we live in an era where these youngsters aren’t viewed as somehow less — they are recognised as valuable citizens with lots of potential. Here in the UAE, parents of children with special needs have access to some of the best treatments and therapies in the world.
One such place is the Austin Center, located in Al Nahda on the Dubai-Sharjah border. Established in 2015, its experienced therapists provide speech, occupational, Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) therapy and psychological services in both school and community settings.
“Our therapists use advanced and research-based methodologies to provide the most effective therapies in a safe and nurturing environment,” explains Asha Susan Mani, Autism and Behavioural Consultant who leads the centre.
Therapy sessions are goal-oriented but still emphasise each child’s unique needs and abilities. We make sure these services are child-centred so that the intervention can be easily integrated into their daily routines both at home and school.
“Therapy sessions are goal-oriented but still emphasise each child’s unique needs and abilities. We make sure these services are child-centred so that the intervention can be easily integrated into their daily routines both at home and school.”
The facility, with an impressive record of mainstreaming more than 97 per cent of its kids to top schools, has a free ongoing behaviour consultant and case manager supervision to ensure faster results.
Mani says the right intervention early on is vital for children with special needs to lead an independent life, with research proving that learning and development are at the highest rate in the preschool years.
“Early intervention also supports parents seeking children to progress in their early years of life and will give hope and confidence that things can improve and that they will eventually succeed,” she says. “Think life success rather than school success.”
Mani adds that her team embraces the latest methods and approaches in the field.
For example, for children with hearing impairment and auditory processing disorders there is PROMPT (an acronym for PROMPTS for Restructuring Oral Muscular Phonetic Targets), which is known for its touch and feel approach whereby a therapist places their hands on the client’s face to guide their jaw, lips and tongue to move correctly to form words. The programme helps develop motor skill in the development of language for interaction.
Another UAE centre of note is Hope Abilitation Medical Center (AMC). Managing Director and Founder Amal Tolba says when it comes to addressing physical, functional and linguistic deficiencies, children are often not correctly diagnosed.
“On top of this, many schools are unsure how to approach a certain challenge — for example, a speech delay; is it due to a psychological problem, a pragmatic language disorder, or a muscle and structural problem like being tongue tied?
As we are a full medical facility with doctors and therapists working together, we are able to evaluate, diagnose as well as provide a full treatment plan for each child.
“Because we are a full medical facility with doctors and therapists working together, we are able to evaluate, diagnose as well as provide a full treatment plan for each child.”
Hope AMC combines different medical specialties such as neurology, paediatrics, genetics and orthopaedics with different therapy approaches such as physiotherapy, speech, feeding and occupational therapy to best suit each child’s individual needs.
“Children with disabilities face many challenges when it comes to self-care and independence and they need to be offered the opportunity of vocational training. They also often need to be trained on self-dressing, self-feeding and hygiene to be able to lead as much of an independent life as possible,” she explains.
Kids on the autism spectrum usually have delays due to social communication, so Hope AMC therapists offer a range of effective programmes such as social skills groups and Lego therapy, which uses a love of playing with the bricks to help develop communication skills.
For Down’s syndrome children, practitioners work on strengthening muscles through physiotherapy alongside several occupational therapy programmes that work on problem solving and cognitive skills.
Tolba adds, “Children with challenges need to lead their own lives as much as possible, so therapy needs to focus on life skills that will give them independence as well as confidence.”
Let them flourish
In the UAE inclusion policies are now in place that welcome a diverse range of learners from foundation stage to secondary level. Special Educational Needs (SEN) departments in schools have grown and adapted to the requirements of their learners, working in collaboration with people of determination, their caregivers, teachers, peers and external specialists.
Alternative curriculum pathways are also being established to ensure that children strive in the school environment, such as the ASDAN-UK curriculum. This is developed for children with a wide range of learning needs and abilities and provides meaningful outcomes through a person-centred approach that prepares learners for adult life.
“An increasing number of employers are hiring people with disabilities,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of mental health centre Lighthouse Arabia.
Dr Afridi points to the Together Limitless initiative established by Emirates NBD, which is committed to helping create a world where there are no barriers for people with disabilities to achieve the same dreams and potential as others.
We need to stop feeling pity and providing favours because someone has a disability. We need to discover acceptance, equality, and appreciate the benefits of a diverse community.
“The UAE has made significant advancements in promoting inclusion for people of determination. However, we continue to encounter challenges in breaking stigmas and changing attitudes,” adds Dr Afridi.
“We need to stop feeling pity and providing favours because someone has a disability. We need to discover acceptance, equality, and appreciate the benefits of a diverse community.”
Finding solutions for people with autism
Marina Loukas, Administrative Director, Doris Duan-Young (DDY) Autism Centre, on what makes this space truly unique:
How can Doris Duan-Young (DDY) Autism Centre help children develop necessary life skills, allowing them to lead lives as independent as possible?
At DDY Autism Centre, everything we do is for the purpose of improving our client’s independence and developing their life skills. We address social and functional skills in the centre and in the community through our social outings. During social outings, we take clients all over Dubai, including parks, bowling centres and cafés, in order to provide them with opportunities to practice the skills they learn in the centre in real-life settings.
Infrastructures that set DDY apart are our observation rooms, sensory pods and magic carpet.
What facilities does the centre provide to children suffering from autism?
DDY is the proud recipient of the 2019 DHCC Excellency Award for Innovation for our purpose-built facility for children of determination. Infrastructures that set DDY apart are our observation rooms, sensory pods and magic carpet. Our observation rooms are a place for parents to observe their child through a one-way mirror with CCTV monitors and sound. Parents are able to observe their child and participate in training without distracting the child from the session. Sensory pods offer clients a quiet place, with built in lights and music that can be altered to address their sensory needs. Magic carpet is a device that projects music and games on the floor and allows clients an interactive experience.
— GN Focus report