All photos by Victoria Scott
Five-year-old Omar is sitting at a desk. In front of him are two photos – one of his mother, and the other of himself. He’s asked to pick the one of his mom, and when he does, both his teacher and his mother, Reem Al Sheikh, erupt into applause.
Omar, a Jordanian expat, has been diagnosed with autism, a disorder that means he has difficulty communicating and forming relationships.
Unable to find the right standard of care for her son in mainstream schools in Doha, Al Sheikh has decided to enroll him in one-on-one intensive teaching sessions at the Child Development Center (CDC) in West Bay Lagoon.
Tucked away on a quiet residential street, this center is focused on providing comprehensive therapies and support for children of all nationalities with mild to moderate special needs in Qatar, and their families. It soft-launched in November, and had a formal opening in March.
CDC was founded by Hasna Nada, a Qatari woman whose son Faisal, six, also has autism. In an interview with Doha News, she said she established the center because she’d been unable to find a place in Qatar that could offer her son the therapy he needed. She continued:
“These kids need 30, 40 hours a week of therapy. After Faisal’s diagnosis, I was advised to try Awsaj – the learning center run by Qatar Foundation. It’s a great program, but it has no places, and a huge waiting list. So, we had no options.
Qatar is the richest country in the world, and autism is very prevalent in the local community, but it’s not spoken about. Every other day I meet a child with autism, and really I don’t understand why nobody is doing anything about it.”
Nada added that the Awsaj Center prioritizes Qataris, making it nearly impossible for expat families to secure places for their children.
Meanwhile, other alternatives are also not very feasible for most families. Therapy and support provided by Hamad Medical Corp. is currently very sparse, for example, with long waiting lists and limited access to therapists, she said.
Though CDC has not been able to obtain formal statistics about autism in Qatar, its own research suggests that 20 percent of the country’s school population has some kind of learning disability.
This figure tallies with estimates from the US, where 5 percent of school children have been given a formal diagnosis of learning difficulties, but a further 15 percent have undiagnosed problems.
Nada set up CDC with the help of a friend, Spanish expat Sabrina Mancuso, whose son is also on the autistic spectrum.
CDC costs notably more than many other educational centers in Doha. But Mancuso told Doha News that while there are several private nurseries and schools in Qatar that cater to special needs children, CDC’s credentials make it stand out from the rest:
“CDC is the only place in Qatar, apart from HMC’s Rumailah Hospital, which has staff qualified to diagnose children with these conditions,” she said. “And we have invested a lot of money in qualified therapists, some of whom we’ve brought over from the USA.”
The center offers a raft of services, including:
- An intensive Early Intervention Program aimed at children ages 3 to 6 years old who have autism and related disorders;
- Occupational Therapy, which helps improve physical and sensory development;
- Speech and Language therapy; and
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy, which addresses anxiety, self-esteem and anger management.
Currently, around 70 children attend the center on a regular basis, with plans to cater to more in September, as CDC now has a waiting list.
Some children attend every morning, five days a week, while others take afternoon classes designed to support their studies in mainstream schools. The center also offers workshops and support for parents. Mancuso explained:
“We strongly believe in educating the parents as much as possible, so they can help their own kids. If the parents know why their child is doing that, or feeling this way, then the prognosis is much better.”
With a teacher to child ratio of 4:6 in the Early Intervention (EI) class, CDC’s services are not cheap. The five-day-a-week full-time program currently costs QR 20,000 a month, and because the center is not classed as a school, many parents are unable to claim back the cost from their employers, even if school fees are usually covered under their contracts.
Mancuso said parents who cannot afford the services are asked to bring a proof of salary, and then given discounts or scholarships. She continued:
“We want to make the services available to everyone. Globally, this sort of care is very expensive. But one of our goals is to seek out corporate alliances so that we can reduce the cost.”
Despite the high rates, Reen Latif, a Malaysian mother of six-year-old Mikael, believes that the cost is worth it. She’d previously had to pay privately for a shadow teacher at her son’s nursery, and numerous therapists to come to her at home, which became very expensive.
She also had to pay for a psychologist and a behavioral therapist to come to her son’s new mainstream school every day, to try to coax him into the classroom. Speaking to Doha News, she said:
“I wanted to keep him in nursery, because I knew he wasn’t prepared for school, but he couldn’t stay there because of the new rules which say children have to leave when they’re four. So on his first day at school, (my son) freaked out. He hid under a table, and he stayed outside the class for a whole month.”
Reem Al Sheikh also feels that the fees are worth it. Omar has been attending CDC since it opened last November.
In that time, she told Doha News that she has gone from not understanding his needs at all, to understanding what he wants the majority of the time, with the help of picture cards and intensive speech therapy.
“From nothing, I now understand him,” she said. “His behavior is getting better, his tantrums have gone because he can make his needs known, and his eye contact is getting better. He’s a happy boy. I just have nightmares about what if he gets lost, he doesn’t talk, he wouldn’t be able to say who he was. But if he learns to express himself, a lot of things will change.”
Both mothers agree that access to support services is not the only thing that needs improvement here – attitudes also must change. Al Sheikh said the way people have treated her son has caused her to transform from a “lady” to a “lion:”
“Our society is bad – the way they stare at these kids – you know, if he has a tantrum in a mall or on a plane, they think you’re a bad parent. One woman told me on a plane, ‘you’re the worst mum I’ve ever seen,’ because my son looks normal. You have to keep explaining to people, and it’s hard.”
Latif added that she hopes that eventually, society will look at her son as “just another normal child.” She says she has modest, but definite hopes for his future:
“I just want him to be able to enjoy life like any other kid, without the need for therapy. And I also want him to be independent, so that one day when I leave this world, he’s capable enough to cope without me.”
The lack of those specialized facilities is reflective of how the government and ultimately the society at large set its priorities.
The standards of education and healthcare is a clear evidence of that.
It is also due to a large gap in availability of specialized staff and a larger gap in parents that understand autism. Taking my niece out I don’t get looked at by locals, but by expats that look at the Qatari with the loud crazy child. Education on autism and how to handle it is missing even in the “western civilization” and it us as hard to find good honest care centers without coughing up over 60K QAR a year.
The sheer ignorance and arrogance of your comment shows how little you know… It’s not the government fault that every expat here wants to come and bring their family…
Expats agree to come to Doha and look at overall pay first.. Once the arrive they complain about the lack of everything.. F me!! Seriously now you expect Qatar govt to provide schools for special needs kids at subsidized rates… Like everything else… Priority in such limited schools should be for locals first and the therapy need of a non local child second… Over half the globe suffers from lack of enough hospital bed and therapy for folks with special needs… Believe me there is no lack of.. The problem is the over growth of the expat community who expect the government to provide every little thing for them
And when a local needs good specialized health care they go abroad. So next time Your mom, dad, sister, brother, etc. needs really specialized health care, and maybe their lives depend on it ,remember your words and stay here. You might be taking a bed away from one of my compatriots. Same goes for education. STAY AT HOME.
Looks like I’ve hit a chord with you.. How can you even draw parallel lines between expats clogging the educational and health care system in Doha and Qataris going abroad to get higher education… Or getting specialized health care !!
You complain about expats needing specialized care for family while here while Qataris are on planes going to my country to get health care and education.
Education wise the private expat schools are not FOR the Qataris. They’re welcome to apply if there is room but they are not for Qatari so you shouldn’t speak of priority for Qatari in those schools. Without that element of expat there would be no American School, Doha College, MES, DES, etc etc. They are there to serve that element of the expat community. Sorry but no one is trying to take your children’s spots in the Qatari primary and high schools.
And if the hospitals are so state of the art as MIMH states then why do Qatari need to go abroad for health care?
My problem is the Qatari I find on here harbor such disdain for my country, culture and society but want my healthcare and education when the systems here are in the toilet.
As I said before your gov’t has decided to spend $20 billion on a WC when the education and health care systems are woefully inadequate. You might even voice your displeasure but then no one who counts is listening are they?
Again don’t how to explain this to your little mind… When I travel to the UK for a surgery the NHS does not pay for my procedure I do … In Doha all health care is subsidized… And If you believe everything in Qatar is in the toilet.. Then it’s great to have you in the toilet with us
If health care is sooo great then why would you have to travel abroad for surgery?
Closing the thread because as usual, the same commenters are devolving the discussion. Come on, people!
Private expat schools are not for Qataris ? I dare any of them to say that. I agree with A_qtr, your just 15 if not younger.
12 and the private expat schools are not built for Qataris. If they were they would be full of Qataris.
And really I care nada about what the 2 of you clowns think.
Don’t write a comment for the sake of it. We don’t need your ignorant impression about our society, special needs are at a very high priority. I have witnessed how westerners react when they deal with a special need person, the problem is not in this society it’s from where you come from.
You really don’t know your own society then do you? Much less a western society.
My society is not the expat bubble you live in.
I guess I’m happy in my bubble where priorities are straight and ego is earned.
I find your comment nonesensical. Qatar has some of the best funded and best equipped hospitals in the world. Yes of course they could do with better staff and more of them but that is a problem in many developed countries.
As for the education, again that sector is pretty well catered to in terms of standards, however ironic the worst schools are the government ones for locals. The only problem with education is the lack of places for the population growth.
It is funny how some people turn up like they are at a dinner party and then complain to the host the food is crap and they want to eat something else.
LOL and which ones would that be? Ahli?, lol. Hamad? A really big LOL LOL
Education point is not ironic. The expat schools are funded from outside the gov’t of Qatar and the curriculum they follow is why they are so good. The gov’t of Qatar would rather spend $20 billion on the WC than educate the population. Their choice, your loss. Stop blaming expats. The best primary, high school and universities are all western curriculum and funded.
Honestly can’t stop thinking about your comment… Please tell me where your from.. I honestly want to objectively compare how your society treat and integrates the disabled compared to Qatar…
Awsaj is horrid, just bad when it comes to accepting children with disabilities. They have a very hard to achieve wishlist, such as:
-child must be potty trained
-child must be able to communicate verbally
-child must be trained already and in no need for “wranglers” to calm them down
Criteria that does not apply to a HUGE spectrum of autistic children with varying difficulty.
Based on that, I don’t think it’s a special needs center, just a center for “challenged” very normal otherwise children
Actually sorry to break it down but as a Qatari mom of a child with autism I have been let down for the past 4 years like many other local moms. The waiting lists to even get a diagnosis are insane and so is the availability of services. Nothing. And what is there is of the lowest quality possible. Even doctors at HMC have shared their frustrations with is and adviced us to seek services abroad which have been very costly and disruptive for our families. We are Qataris and we feel that we have no school, no services and no place for our kids here while we know they can thrive with proper services. It is sad and heartbreaking. Everyday we pray someone will notice and do something about it.
2nd new account in one day that claims to be Qatari and talks on behalf of all Qataris.
I wish you never experience having a child with differences. You can join our autism parent network and see for yourself how desperate we are. Shame on you for representing the worst of us! May Allah forgive you.
This is one story you should learn to keep a certain facial feature closed.