In the Gulf countries, as in many parts of the world, there exist a number of children who have mild forms of mental disorder or diminished mental intuition. This is no fault of theirs. It is, unfortunately, the luck of the draw, for in a family, two or three of the siblings may be completely normal, while one could be the unfortunate one who suffers from syndromes that do not assist him or her by normal means.
But by no means are these children not intelligent enough or mentally retarded. They suffer from mild to moderate maladies that, if diagnosed and corrected at an early age, will help them go forth in their adult lives with a minimum of exhausting tribulations, challenges that they may fail to overcome if not subject to early intervention and treatment.
And herein lies the dilemma, as I know of only a few institutions that address shortcomings in children such as ADD, ADHD, anxiety and mild dyslexia. Regular schools are woefully short of teachers who are trained to cater to the needs of these children and some relegate them to the rear of classrooms to avoid the disruptive impact. It is not their fault that these children are just victims in a system that does not understand them.
Recently, I ran into a Saudi married to a Brazilian who had been practising law in Riyadh, until he moved to Jordan along with his family. He was very forthcoming on the reasons for their departure. “The main reason we had to leave was that we couldn’t find proper help for our eight-year old son. And guess what? Not even a good diagnosis ... we spent a lot of money from doctor to doctor and nobody could give us a professional assessment, what’s worse no one even knew what they were talking.”
His son has had learning difficulties since an early age and the parents first assumed that it could be due to the fact that he was exposed to three languages at the same time, and was having a difficult time switching between languages.
Following the child’s paediatrician’s advice, the parents enrolled him when he was in KG2 in an English-only school with a friend of theirs who was his teacher and knew about his learning disability. Thanks to her patience and encouraging demeanour, the parents noticed more improvements and also their son’s expressions indicated happiness. Also, with only English being spoken at home he started to improve slowly.
When the time came to enrol him in first grade, they had to put him in a Saudi school, as permissions to International schools were then denied.
As the father related: “Little Sami started first grade ... Time went by and Sami was thrust into taking Arabic, French and English at the same time. He just couldn’t handle it and started having difficulties in school. Even though my wife and I spoke to the teachers, it was apparent to us that they themselves didn’t know what teaching was supposed to be.”
Forced into memorising his subjects and the screaming from the teachers were too much for Sami and he started again to shrink back into his previously shy, insecure and scared self. At the end of the year, the parents told the school management that they didn’t think their son was ready for second grade, but they passed him anyway and the new year started.”
He began to display increasing frustrations and the parents had him in and out of major hospitals in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to get a proper diagnosis done. They even suggested to his principal that he might be afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder or Dyslexia. His principal was totally ignorant of such disorders and suggested that perhaps the parents were too gentle with Sami: Something along the lines of spare the rod, and spoil the child.
Finally, with no other avenues of hope, they turned their attention to other countries in the region for help. Someone told them of an institute in Jordan for children with learning difficulties.
The Brazilian wife said: “My husband gave up his full-time law practice, as he had to fly in to see us often. Today, Sami has come out of his shell and is picking up rapidly. But it has not been easy to uproot the family and have a part-time father. I had read some months ago of an announcement that the Saudi government was planning several centres for children with learning disorders, but what has happened? Nothing as far as I know.”
Such children do exist in our Gulf societies and left to fend for themselves, they will only end up being a burden. Schools must cater to special-needs children and governments should design early assessment programmes to help worried parents.
Proper diagnosis and recognition of the disorders are critical along with cognitive therapy to overcome their dysfunction. Only then will these children get a chance to be responsible adults.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twiter: @talmaeena.