As an author of six books on Asperger Syndrome, it is natural that I am asked by friends and acquaintances, and complete strangers who found my name on the web, how well Dubai caters for those on the autistic spectrum and for special needs generally. Unfortunately, in the past, I was unable to give an informed answer. My children left Dubai schooling years ago, and I had not set foot in a special needs centre in Dubai in a very long time. However, I do know that when I last looked, about six years ago, there were a few very dedicated overworked people, struggling on limited resources, who tried their best to cope with the ever increasing number of autistic and special needs children and adults living in, and coming to, Dubai. Many families were forced to leave Dubai to get expert help. I would have said, back then, that Dubai as a whole did not cater all that well for special needs.
This all changed when the staff of Kinokuniya, that huge bookstore in the Dubai Mall, approached my UK publisher, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, at the London Book Fair. Kinokuniya wanted to give back to the Dubai community by helping to highlight Autism and Asperger Syndrome in the region. Jessica Kingsley told them about my latest book, Inside Asperger’s Looking Out, and soon I was approached to do a signing.
My first thought was, will anyone come? It’s every author’s nightmare –at a signing desk, pen ready, welcoming smile fixed on your face - sitting completely, utterly, alone. To ward off the ultimate shame of no one turning up, I decided to call a few centres who deal with autism and Asperger’s to see if anyone would be interested in hearing me speak and seeking my signature. I guessed that there were five centres in Dubai, maybe six, tops, that focussed on the autistic spectrum. Half an hour of calls, I thought, and hopefully I could muster a small crowd on the day who would be interested in hearing and reading about a different insight to Asperger Syndrome.
Over forty phone calls, as many emails, and a week later, I knew just how wrong I was. Dubai is full of centres that assist those with special needs and many of these centres deal with Asperger’s and autism on a daily basis. My signing was no longer the focus as I became intrigued by the overwhelming interest in Asperger’s ‘out there’. Many of my phone calls lasted over half an hour as I talked to doctors and volunteers and specialists, passionate about their drive to highlight the strengths and uniqueness of their clients, concerned about the trouble their clients experience in a world that does not understand them, and determined to make life better for every child, adult and parent that walks through their doors.
Some of these clinics were new and were actively seeking more clients. Other clinics were full and in one case a centre asked specifically not to be listed in any Asperger resource sheet as they simply could not take any more clients. Volunteers talked about how they willingly gave numerous unpaid hours to bring joy and hope to those special needs people they had grown to love. I visited an art centre which caters for those too old for schooling, and saw the amazing work they were doing and how much their self esteem grew knowing their work was appreciated and encouraged.
Although I have not, as yet, investigated the educational side of autism/Asperger’s, I do know that many schools in Dubai now have special needs centres and are integrating those on the spectrum into classrooms. Teachers are beginning to have professional development days devoted to understanding autistic children in their classroom.
I also discovered that the Dubai government, through the Dubai Early Childhood Development Centre, is actively raising awareness of those on the autistic spectrum to “empower them to become equal members of society”.
So now, when I am asked about how well Dubai caters for special needs, I can confidently say that it is coming along in leaps and bounds. The number of outstanding specialists setting up in Dubai is growing every day. Schools are beginning to open their doors, and more importantly, offering expert help to special needs students. The government is actively involved in improving conditions and assistance to those on the spectrum, and indeed in all special needs areas. I think this is an exciting time for special needs in Dubai and there is hope that every child and adult on the autistic spectrum will soon be able to find the care, assistance and understanding needed to make their lives enriched.
Kathy Hoopmann is an author of fifteen books published in four countries by six different publishing houses, and with translations into eleven languages. She has won and been shortlisted for many literary awards including the Children’s Book Council of Australia Award, the Childhood Wellness Moonbeam Award (US), and the Nautilus Award (US).
Kathy is best known for All Cats have Asperger Syndrome, All Dogs have ADHD and Inside Asperger’s Looking Out, and the simplicity, charm and insight of these books has made them must-haves for explaining the diagnoses of Asperger’s and ADHD worldwide. Kathy has lived (mostly) in Dubai since 2003 and regularly presents workshops for teachers and children in the UAE and internationally.
She will be doing a book signing at Kinokuniya Bookshop in Dubai from 4.30pm to 6pm on November 14th and will be speaking at the Emirates Literary Festival next March.