UAE: How 15-year-old Emirati teen beat the blues of autism with musical talent

When pianist Ahmed Al Hashemi’s mother Eiman al Aleeli discovered her son’s special needs, she was devastated, but she wasn’t one to give up

By Manju Ramanan

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Published: Mon 8 Jan 2024, 7:01 PM

Last updated: Tue 9 Jan 2024, 10:24 AM

“Tell me the name of a famous Indian song and I will play it for you,” wrote Ahmed Al Hashemi when I chatted with him some time ago. The 15-year-old Emirati pianist and composer is autistic and considered a child prodigy with several accolades to his name.

He won the first place in the Ammar Talents Competition, chosen from more than 18 thousand participants from the Gulf area; the first place in the Abu Dhabi Talents competition and the Game Show, Win The Crowd, a Bronze medal in the International Competition for Composers, won the International competition for Mozart Music, the International Chopin Piano Competition, earned the Gold medal in Lipton Music competition, earned his diploma in the Global Awards competition for the Best Youngest Musician, holds the sixth degree at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) and holds grade five at Trinity. He has performed in more than 40 events in the UAE and in KSA, South Korea, Canada and Egypt.

His mother Eiman al Aleeli was a bank manager with ADIB when her second son, Ahmed, was born. Though normal at birth, the child wouldn’t speak or make eye contact and it started getting tough to handle. “Most nurseries refused to admit him and we didn’t know what to do. One day, at work, I was on the phone with my ex-boss when two-year-old Ahmed, at my office creche, was throwing things around and screaming. My ex-boss asked me some other questions to which I said yes. His son was autistic and he knew the signs”. At his advice we took Ahmed to special needs counsellors in the UAE, US and France to discover that he was autistic.

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“I was devastated but to help my child, I educated myself and set out to find a good autistic centre for him. Nearly all of them were booked and there was no space,” she says. Eiman then found a nursery and employed a special needs therapist. She also discovered that there were no centres for children above 17 years. They would be usually home doing nothing while their brothers and sisters would attend school and college. “I resolved that Ahmed wouldn’t be in that situation. I found activities for him that included drawing and swimming and started doing it with him. In fact, in six months of swimming, Ahmed won first position in the UAE’s Special Needs Swimming Competition."

By the age of five, Eiman observed that every time Ahmed heard music, he would behave like a maestro. “I bought a small piano at home and played the tune, 'Happy Birthday to You’ to him. At that time, he wasn’t interested. The next day when I came home, he was playing the piece by himself. I was shocked.” He took to music like fish to water.

Eiman lined up music teachers for him but they would all leave. “I have been through 300 teachers for Ahmed and advertised in magazines and newspapers. Finally, one teacher from Italy identified his genius and said he had the ability to recognise all music notes without notations and that he was gifted like Beethoven and Mozart. Another teacher from Russia marvelled at the way he played the piano. Today, all those teachers follow him on Instagram. All music schools who refused to take him in want him to be their student.”

Last year, Ahmed was invited to a party thrown by a classmate and happily announced it at home. When Eiman called the boy for directions he was unreachable. She asked another child to call and check and heard the boy answer that he didn’t want Ahmed to attend his party because he was not “one of us”. “I asked the child if he could take Ahmed in for half-an-hour and he refused. His parents told me that since my child has special needs, he might need special care. I had a tough time pacifying Ahmed. He was heartbroken and cried bitterly and I cried too,” she says. Incidents like these have only strengthened Eiman’s resolve.

“I know a mother from the support group who took her own life when she realised that her only son was autistic. Like all parents I worry, what will happen to my child when I am gone? Today, he is independent, has performed in many countries, earns some money and is an emerging talent from the UAE. His brother, Abdulla, is his soulmate and our ‘little soldier’ in this war.

The family of six that includes her husband and three other sons have decided to travel with Ahmed wherever he goes for higher studies abroad. “I want to make all his dreams come true. He wants to perform the world over and that will happen, Inshallah,” adds Eiman. The story of this gritty mother and her prodigious son continues to inspire scores of other parents.

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