Yemen Center for Autism: struggling ‘alone’ to serve a growing population nationwide

Published on 14 November 2012 in Report
Sadeq Al-Wesabi (author)

Sadeq Al-Wesabi

A teacher at the center makes a student laugh while they run through specialized language exercises. (YT photo by Sadeq Al-Wesabi)

A teacher at the center makes a student laugh while they run through specialized language exercises. (YT photo by Sadeq Al-Wesabi)

The population of autistic children is rapidly increasing in Yemen, but institutions and bodies of trained professionals that are able to provide support for those affected by this developmental disability are not able to keep up with emerging cases, according to Seham Al-Sadmi, the head of the Programs and Severe Disability Department at the Yemen Center for Autism (YCA) in Sana’a.

Originally founded in 2005, the YCA is the only facility in the country that accommodates young autistic populations.

“Children with autism need very special care and  particular means,” said Al-Sadmi, who notes there are no specialists in Yemen who are trained to implement autism’s most recent advancements.  

While the center offers more than 117 children a range of activities specially crafted for their needs, autism is a relatively foreign concept in Yemen that is just now generating awareness.

Al-Sadmi partially blames a lack of media coverage and a sense of apathy from the government.  

Due to this lapse in expertise and awareness of this mental condition, parents are often in the dark and without guidance in diagnosing and caring for their autistic child.  They can also be in a state of denial regarding their child’s circumstances, according to Al-Sadmi.    

 “The majority of the cases that are brought to the center are in very developed stages. Some parents consider children with autism mad,” she said.  “Most of the parents bring their children at an age of 12 or 13. It’s very difficult at these ages to provide them with rehabilitation programs and training.”

Some parents like Fam Um Ahmed are lucky that doctors are now correctly diagnosing children with autism in time for them to begin learning specialized skills at an early age.

Um Ahmed grew worried when her son was not responding to her or interacting like children of a similar age so she took him to a hearing specialist who told her about the Yemen Center for Autism.  

“Although I’m educated, I had no idea about autism, and what I’d heard about it was that it’s a horrible and destroying thing. I didn’t realize at that time that my child was suffering from autism until the doctor told me,” she said.

“Autism is not an easy thing for parents. It’s a shocking  thing,” she added.

Um Ahmed advises mothers to take action if they notice their child is very introverted and doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with others in their age group.   

“They shouldn’t listen to their friends or neighbors who advise them not to take their children to the autism center at an early age,” she said, adding that there is a plethora of information on the Internet that can guide parents through the often tricky situation of determining if their child needs special care.    

Currently, Um Ahmed is satisfied with her child’s progress.

“His eye contact is getting better, and he responds to others positively. He also can solve puzzles better than his brothers, and he always surprises me with his behavior.”  

Not all children are so lucky.  The center is funded through grants from international organizations and receives some government funding, but currently it is not enough to provide services to all those in the under served autistic community.  

“We have a plan to expand our activities and open more centers in some governorates to embrace autistic [populations] in other cities,” Al-Sadmi said. “Some families of autistic children cannot reach us because of long distance between their homes and our center”

Despite the uphill battle of obtaining funding, increasing awareness and combating parents’ preconceived notions regarding autism, the center works diligently with the resources they have.

On any given day at the center, children can be found playing enthusiastically inside colorful rooms or receiving special skills courses.

“We do our best to modify their behavior.  [We teach them] how to hold pens and write and how to sit in chairs in order for them to be able to integrate in schools and deal with other children,” said Al-Sadmi.

The center says it will continue to lobby local government for funding so as to cement autism as a health priority for the country.