Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, Chairperson of Qatar Foundation, reflects on the importance of autism awareness and allowing all children to reach their full potential.
It’s the morning of 2 April, the day the UN has declared as World Autism Awareness Day. I am scheduled to visit Renad Academy, a specialist school for children with autism.
The school is named after a flower that grows in our Qatari desert. I am fasting and tired, lacking in sleep because of a Ramadan night stretched through to dawn. I arrive at Renad debilitated and leaden. And then, I visit the pre-school class and my mood shifts — my energy soars.
Children are scattered all around the class, hardly listening to their teacher, although alert to the intrusion of strangers. Although some try not to meet our gaze, we catch the curious glances of others.
I squeeze myself into a tiny chair between two young students and attempt to engage them in conversation. Haya is the more open of the two, immediately sharing her interests, her favorite game, and even her apple. She immediately captures my heart and elevates my mood. I ask her if she would like to join me in touring the school. She doesn’t hesitate, simply taking my hand and standing up, ready to go.
It is not so long ago that there was very little awareness of the needs of children like Haya and her classmates. The first person ever diagnosed with autism, American Donald Triplett, is still alive. In his childhood, he was sent to an institution where his quirks and mannerisms were not understood. His story turned out happily, but unfortunately this has not been the case for a great many people.
Rather than drawing on our humanity to bring out their best, our society would confine those who did not ‘fit’ perceived norms to the sidelines. Unable, because of their autism, to play and achieve in the manner of other children, they were not allowed even to enter the playing field. Many were bullied, and, prevented from accessing full education and extracurricular activities, they were destined for lives of unfulfilled potential and denied the opportunity to contribute to their communities.
That’s why Al Shafallah Centre for Persons with Disability was opened back in 1999, and Renad Academy in 2016, with many other facilities and specialised programmes launched in between. It’s why in 2007 we proposed the UN declare a World Autism Awareness Day, and it’s why Qatar became the first host country in the history of the FIFA World Cup to provide dedicated sensory rooms for people with autism and sensory processing difficulties at our stadiums.
Qatar has operated under its world-leading National Autism Plan since 2017. Once a diagnosis is made, a family is linked with the many health, educational and social support services that exist here. Early intervention provides the strongest foundation on which to build a positive future.
As a small nation, both in size and population, we are able to develop close links between all our diagnostic, treatment and support services, research and analyse genetic links, and both support and follow those with autism throughout their life’s journey.
We are developing a compassionate holistic programme of education, mental and physical healthcare, and genetic research which leverages the unique characteristics of our population to discover new genes and uncover scientific insights. These could pave the way for innovative and effective intervention strategies, as our researchers investigate the powerful capabilities of AI coupled with state-of-the-art sensing technologies to enable the remote observation and quantitative assessment of children with autism.
Today, statistics suggest that, worldwide, as many as two percent of children are somewhere on the autism spectrum. Its prevalence appears to be increasing, although certainly this is at least partly because of more accurate diagnostic techniques.
Here in Qatar, recent research shows that one in every 87 children is diagnosed with autism. It is vital that children are diagnosed as early as possible: that way they have the best chance of being supported and educated in a way that accords with their own individual needs.
Autism is not a disease. It’s a condition that people live with throughout their lives. Its impact can be minimized, but only when all of us accept that difference should be celebrated rather than shunned. Recognising the individuality and ability of a child such as Haya is the first step towards empowering her to take her own rightful place in our society.
Haya led me into a roundtable meeting of experts convened on World Autism Awareness Day — a meeting where we could discuss Qatar’s achievements and the challenges in meeting the needs of children like Haya, their parents, and all those who intervene, teach and counsel them. She was reluctant to leave. Her teacher persuaded her to take her coloring back to the classroom.
Little Haya is fortunate that she has been diagnosed early. She is eager to go to the school that has been carefully designed for her and for other children with autism; I do not say “like her”, because all are so different and unique. At Renad Academy, there is no pressure to conform or to achieve in the traditional way. The students are free to be themselves and recognized for their right to belong in our society just as they are.
Beyond safe havens such as the academy, their journey may not be so smooth. But international recognition through World Autism Awareness Day and Month helps chip away at the lack of acceptance that still exists in pockets here in Qatar and in other parts of the world. I hope it will encourage some families to choose to bring out the best in their children, rather than deny that their child is ‘different’.
Being hugged by Haya was, for me, a very special thing. My dream for Haya and for all children with autism or other forms of neurodiversity is not that they win, but that they be allowed onto the field to play, alongside all the other children, cheered on by the parents and all the family, teachers and supporters they need. Every child has a right to be treated with dignity, to be educated, and to reach their full potential.
This opinion piece was originally published by Qatar Foundation.