Seeing the world from within

Published on 30 April 2012 in Health & Environment
Safiya Al-Jabry (author)

Safiya Al-Jabry

Reham, third from left, holds the hands of her colleagues as they line up for the marathon.

Reham, third from left, holds the hands of her colleagues as they line up for the marathon.

From a distance, Amr Shakir looks like any other 7-year-old child. His bubbly character draws people to talk to him. But as one gets closer to him and spends more time with him, one notices that he rarely makes eye contact and does not concentrate on one thing at a time. Amr is one of the many autistic children in Yemen.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is one category of disorders that fall under pervasive development disorders. It is characterized by broad impairment in thinking, reacting and feeling.

‘Sorry, I am human,’ are the simple yet powerful words written on a small board outside the gate of the Yemen Center for Autism. The sign arouses the curiosity of passersby, who take a look inside to learn more about autism.  According to Ahlam Al-Riyashi, managing director of the Yemen Center for Autism, the center is a home for 77 autistic children.

“The kids here have different stages of autism; some are severe while others only show mild symptoms of the disorder,” Al-Riyashi said.

Just like Amr, Reham is another autistic child at the center. From observation, Reham shows more severe symptoms of autism than Amr does. She doesn’t socialize with people at all except with teachers she is close to.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about autism in Yemen,” Al-Riyashi said. “Autistic children can sometimes be violent, and most parents of autistic children think that their children are crazy and cage them in rooms.”

There is no clear-cut medical test for autism; diagnosis involves observation of the child. Once a child has been diagnosed with autism, various therapies to control the symptoms and maximize learning are available.

The center offers therapies and education for autistic children and helps educate their parents on how to handle their children. These children are offered classes in hygiene, physical education, music and learning of the environment through pictures. They also have swimming classes every Wednesday at the Saudi German hospital.

Reham understood what her principal meant when she said they had a day off to go to marathon in the park. She jumped up and down cheerfully and provoked the other children in her class to jump with her.

Al-Riyashi organized an awareness marathon on Monday, April 16th in the Al-Sabeen area of Sana'a. It was attended by the center's teachers and volunteers from universities.  “This is a way of creating awareness about the disorder,” she said. They also build awareness through bazaars at the center.

Some of the volunteers who attended the marathon got the chance to meet autistic children for the first time in their lives.

"I felt that with these children, there is a slim window of opportunity to interact with them and observe them interacting with each other. I noticed them being very protective of each other and being very close to each other. It was touching, and an eye-opening experience for me," Khadija Abdulhakim, a marathon volunteer said.

Because of the lack of education about this disorder, some parents think their autistic children suffer from mystical ailments such as the evil eye, or possession by the devil.

“Once my neighbor told me to take my child to a sheikh to be treated by the Quran, saying he was possessed by demons,” said a mother of a 12-year-old autistic child. “I had read about this disorder before so I knew what my son was experiencing. Once you get used to their way of life, it's not so difficult to understand them and fulfill to their needs.”

“Autistic children do not have the ability to remember people they meet. It takes time for them to even get used to their teachers,” Khadija Al Yassini, a teacher at the Center said. She graduated with a degree in psychology several years ago. “I’ve been teaching these children for three years now and I enjoy it more than anything else. They make you feel happy, because you feel as though you create something new for them every day. It’s not like teaching an ordinary child; it takes patience and requires knowledge in psychology.”

"The rewards of teaching these children and interacting with them every day outweigh the physical and emotional strength it involves to take care of them," Al-Yassini added.

Autism: Symptoms

The fact that autism has no physical signs before the age of three makes it easy for a care giver to dismiss early symptoms as a delay in growth. The following are some signs to alert the care giver:

No babbling by 12 months
No clear words by 16 months
No two-word phrases by 24 months
Gradual loss of speech as child grows older