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Leading the charge for autism sufferers in the Emirates

By James Reinl

 (CRAIG SCARR)         


Mohammed Al Emadi, Director General

Dubai Autism Center


Mohammed Al Emadi has spearheaded a campaign to gain social acceptance for sufferers of autism. He has led the crusade to bring sufferers into schools, the workplace and the community.


Al Emadi’s life as a successful businessman was profoundly changed following the birth of his son, Omar, who was found to suffer from autism. He says his experience propelled him to “work for a better understanding” of autism in the community and “provide suitable services for families and caregivers”.


He put in the groundwork for the Dubai Autism Center and, in November 2001, the facility was licensed under an official decree.


The Dubai Autism Center has come a long way since its inception in 2001, and attitudes towards the condition have changed greatly thanks to the work undertaken. Emirates Business met up with its director-general, Mohammed Al Emadi, to find out what the new year has in store for the Dubai charity.



The Dubai Autism Center has gained awareness and support throughout 2007. Where do you hope the centre will be by the end of 2008? We’ve heard rumours of a new facility.


Our main focus in 2008 will the awareness and early detection of autism in private schools, a continuation of our awareness campaign with the Ministry of Education. The second concern will be developing a high standard assessment and diagnostic unit while working on a new building to provide educational and therapeutic services to 140 children.


Funding is obviously key. Did you receive additional donations during the traditional charity-giving times of Christmas and Eid Al Adha? What money do you need to achieve your goals of 2008?


We received donations from companies, foundations and individuals throughout the year – but we need continuous support to cover our expenses. We need support from businesses to provide staff salaries, new buildings, learning materials, assessment and diagnostic tools and staff training programmes. We also seek funding to subsidise the fees – we charge Dh20,000 per child while our costs are Dh67,000. Providing a high quality service costs Dh5 million every year.


Multinational firms are starting to take corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously. What is the situation in the UAE?


We want companies and foundations to play a major role in supporting charitable work and to take CSR more seriously. There have been good examples in the community but no continuity in support for special needs centres. Multinationals are one step ahead of us here, with some continually sponsoring entire centres.


Do you find UAE-based companies are willing to employ autistic staff?


Employing people with autism is a challenge for all – the individual, the family, the centre and the community. The centre must prepare the community and the work;place, educate the employer, and build basic skills in the affected individual.


The Dubai Health Authority is currently re-organising the provision of medical services in the emirate. What would be your advice to those in charge of the overhaul?


Our main concern is the early detection and screening of all children. The latest report from the American Academy of Pediatrics advises paediatricians to look for signs of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) at every well-child visit by asking if parents have any concerns about the child’s development or behaviour. If concerns are present, the clinician is advised to use a standardised screening tool. The report also introduces universal screening, which means paediatricians conduct formal ASD screening on all children at 18 and 24 months regardless of whether there are any concerns.


Attitudes towards autism have changed greatly in the past decade, partly thanks to your centre. What was the situation 10 years ago, how do you appraise it now, and what would you like to see in the future?


We cannot compare even with the situation only three years ago. There has been a major leap forward in awareness from virtually nothing. But we still need to work on this aspect by reaching out to government schools and publishing articles in Arabic magazines. We are on track to achieve our goals.


What are the biggest problems encountered by autism sufferers and their families?


The problems follow after a diagnosis has been made. Parents need help with money, learning how to handle their child and information about programmes.


What could the government, health ministries, educators, the private sector and communities do to help?


There are many things that can be done by the government and the community, such as helping to understand the disorder, funding centres, early detection tests, awareness programmes, developing educational programmes including speech and occupational therapy, and supporting training programmes for family members and household staff.