How provisions for autism in the UAE are changing

The UAE’s commitment to inclusion is broadening the landscape for children with autism, we explore what’s changed

Portrait of girl drawing at desk in elementary school
Children with ASD are now able to enter a mainstream school setting

One in 160 children has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the World Health Organization. If you have a child who is affected, or have friends and family with kids who have been diagnosed, then you’ll understand what huge decision is it to select the best fit school. Generally speaking, the choice is either to attend a mainstream school where your child may get support from special educational needs staff if they need it, or to enrol in a dedicated school for children with special educational needs. The good news is that options for those of us in the UAE are improving. In January this year, parents and schools in Dubai celebrated a landmark inclusion initiative, with the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) issuing new regulations and guidelines to ensure that all schools operate inclusive systems of education for students of determination. In turn, the move will help enable admissions and reduce costs.

“Children who wouldn’t have been accepted to schools are now being given places”

“Our conversations with parents and schools have made us aware of challenges faced by students of determination and these recommendations are aimed at filling gaps in current practices,” said Fatma Ibrahim Belrehif, CEO of Dubai School Inspection Bureau at KHDA and the Chairperson of the Dubai inclusive education strategic taskforce. “We share a responsibility to remove all barriers to learning and work towards an inclusive education community that offers equal opportunities for everyone.”

The news follows the opening of Al Karamah School in Abu Dhabi in February 2019, which is dedicated to children on the autistic spectrum aged between three and 18 years old, with capacity for up to 260 Emiratis.

A lack of provisions

It has taken some time to get to this point, however. In the past, parents of a child diagnosed with ASD had limited choice. For Emirati families there were (and still are) a selection of non-profit government bodies, such as Dubai Autism Center and The New England Center in Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, expatriate families could choose from a few private settings depending on their desired therapeutic input and financial means. However, the chances of them getting into a mainstream school setting was unlikely. 

“We could not find one single school placement for Jonny in Dubai or Abu Dhabi,” says Jo Nolan who, in 2011, struggled to find a school for her son who has ASD. Now the Special Educational Needs Coordinator at iCademy Middle East (an alternative education setting with an online curriculum), Jo confirms that “many children who wouldn’t have been accepted in schools before are now being given places.”

How has the law of inclusion helped?

Over the last decade the UAE, in accordance with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, schools have established a strong commitment to providing equal opportunities to those with special needs, including ASD. Thanks to the Government of Dubai’s ‘law of inclusion’, which states that schools must not refuse students of determination because of their disability, and the KHDA’s inclusive education policy framework, which outlines how “education providers ensure students who experience SEND (special educational needs and disability) have equitable access to quality inclusive education with their peers”, children are significantly more supported. 

“The law and framework has helped children with ASD to access
a mainstream education”

“The landscape is completely different compared to when I started working in the UAE in 2008,” said Kristin Buchanan, Director of GCC Consulting Services at The New England Center for Children. “A focus on inclusion has meant more children are being accepted into the general education environment.” 

Schools and the law of inclusion

There are many schools leading the way when it comes to inclusion, once of which is Horizon English School, which is KHDA recommended for children with SEND requirements. Currently, there are around 50 children on its special needs register who benefit from the school’s dedicated SEND action team, three guidance counsellors and links with a number of support organisations in the special needs field. For children with more complex SEND needs, there’s a daily New Horizons class – a life-skills based session that offers those children the chance to form friendships and connections, in the safety of a small group.

Boys sitting on bench in school hall, laughing
While school is a good fit for some, there are different options more suited to others

What works for some children, however, may not be the best fit for others. “One child with ASD may manage perfectly well on a big school campus with support from the SENCO team, while another may experience high levels of anxiety and would do better in a more intimate, specialised environment,” explained Jo. 

Therapy centres for children with autism

The Wilson Centre for Child Development is a private centre with branches in Dubai and Sharjah supporting children with learning difficulties including ASD through various therapies including Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) and Occupational Therapy. Director, Sheena Wilson, who has supported children in the UAE for 19 years said, “some children benefit from having an intensive therapy programme before transitioning into a school environment. There are a number of centres in the emirates that offer one-to-one therapy, which gives parents the luxury of choice. Our goal (at the Wilson Centre) is for a child to become independent and functional enough to access the school curriculum.” 

Choosing the best option for each child

Another option is for a child to split their time between focusing on traditional education and receiving specialised therapies.Anita Archer Clinical Director of ABA at the Wilson Centre said: “We use our clinical expertise to help support teachers with individualised strategies for our learners, we attend their IEP (individualised education programme) meetings and provide a one-to-one therapist in the classroom when required. It’s the team approach that gets the best results.” 

When a child has mild to moderate needs it is quite often the case that the school setting will be suitable up until their teenage years. Offering support for teenagers who are struggling in a typical high school environment, iCademy Middle East run the iCademy Plus group in Knowledge Village, which provides a modified curriculum in a smaller setting. 

“We’ve found that more students coming to us around the ages of 14 to 15 as the mainstream environment has become too challenging for them,” explains Jo who runs the group. “Inclusion is simpler with primary ages. A seven-year-old can play with their peers in the playground and do art in the classroom but it’s a very different ball game by the time they’re 16.” 

With the options for parents with children on the spectrum continually improving, finding the right educational fit for children with ASD is becoming easier to grasp. 

Looking for more insight into schools, nurseries and academics for children in the UAE? See our education focused stories

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