UAE: What's next after school? Parents call for more employment opportunities for autistic people
In April this year, the government announced a National Policy for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder
Some people see only limitations in people with autism. Many on the spectrum, however, are far more capable than others assume.
This is the overwhelming message from parents who belong to the autistic community in the UAE: those with autism can indeed become productive members of society — if given the chance.
Would you hire my autistic child?
Mariam Al Teneiji is an Emirati and mother to 16-year-old Mayed, who was diagnosed with autism when he was just two years old.
Mayed is “much more creative” than his neuro-typical siblings, according to the mum of six, who works as a customer service manager at a local bank. “He is a talented artist, very organised and focused. He also has a sharp memory and advanced knowledge of computer programming."
The beauty of autistic people is that they think differently, she says. "They bring in a different, but fresh, perspective."
There is no reason why Mayed can't be supported to become independent with a job and income of his own one day, she adds. With 44 per cent of people with autism having ‘average or above mental abilities’, according to data from the Ministry of Community Development, this does not seem an unrealistic expectation either.
Al Tuneiji said that she hopes that, under a series of new initiatives announced by the government earlier this year, there will be more spaces in Abu Dhabi — such as special colleges or more vocational workshops — where Mayed can go to build on his artistic abilities and develop his love for cooking.
“There has to be something special; created especially for people with autism, as there is not much for them to do after they graduate from school,” Mariam said, sharing that she would like to see them “integrated into universities, with teachers trained on how to best help people on the spectrum and other disabilities”.
In April this year, the UAE government announced a National Policy for Persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which is tasked with raising the quality of life, upgrading skills, supporting families and caregivers, and increasing the public’s awareness of the disorder.
Under the policy, 14 initiatives related to diagnosis, healthcare, inclusive education, cultural and sports inclusion, and career empowerment will be introduced, among others.
Mariam pointed out that, despite major support from the government — which includes an allowance provided to people of determination, she would love to see them making their own money and becoming more independent by being gainfully employed. "There certainly are some work opportunities for people of determination already, but we would like to see more people with autism hired in suitable positions.”
Independence is the ultimate goal
Archaeologist Dr Michele Ziolkowski has a 14-year-old son on the spectrum. She said that, just like everyone else, individuals with autism too want to find opportunities that are the “correct fit for both the individual and the job”.
Michele is the author of the books ‘The Boy Who Knew the Mountains’, and ‘Suhail's Abu Dhabi Adventure’, both dedicated to her Emirati son, Suhail.
“The big question is, when our children age out of school, what’s next? What happens? What do we do and what do they do? I think it’s a question that’s probably on most parents’ minds. School is over, so what now?” she asked.
Michele noted that although every autistic individual is different, many, like her son, have incredible organisational skills. “I think some people can be very task-focused,” which is a skillset that can be utilised across many jobs.
With vocational training being offered at the Mohammed bin Rashid Centre for Special Education, operated by the New England Centre for Children in Abu Dhabi, Suhail has been practising vital social and life skills. He has worked in the school’s canteen and shelved books at the library. He was also a volunteer at the Special Olympics hosted in the UAE in 2019.
The preteen and his family also feature in a yet-to-be-released documentary telling the story of a boy with autism. The film, by Emirati director Khadijah Kudsi, is set against the backdrop of the mountains of Fujairah, and features his support network in Abu Dhabi.
“It is a story about love, strength, and compassion. It also highlights the beauty of the UAE and the growing sense of awareness for people of determination in our society,” Michele said.
The final scenes of the documentary again raise the question of ‘what’s next?’, and show how his family is very concerned about Suhail’s future when he leaves school. Here is a sneak peek of the film:
According to Michele, more work opportunities are imperative because, like everyone else in a society, “autistic people also want to feel as though they are contributing to the community and to the country”.
She added, “This would increase independence and that is essentially what we are aiming for. We all know how empowering it is when you do something for yourself, when you work, when you achieve something.”
But she also noted: it is not an easy exercise. “The real struggle with someone with autism is finding out exactly what would bring them joy in a workplace setting. It may not necessarily be sitting in an office; it could be working in a garden; it may be creating jewellery or painting ceramics..."
A safe place to work and, perhaps, sell their work might be best, she proposed. “Like a community centre that offers swimming classes, a gym, sports competitions... A space where there is vocational training and opportunity to work. This would benefit children after they leave school.”
She concluded that, like many parents, it's important to take each day as it comes. “You must tackle every challenge as it comes to you. It’s your duty as a parent, but at the back of your mind, you are still always thinking about the future. You can’t stop... because us parents won’t be around forever.”
More vocational centres needed
Creating a positive environment is one of the most vital things you can do for autistic children, believes Mohamed Humaid bin Saqr. The Emirati is father to Salama, 17, Rashid, 12, and Ahmed, 9 — all of whom have been diagnosed with autism.
Twelfth grader Salama has her own YouTube channel where she shares her drawings of animation characters and dialogue she creates.
Her dad sees her as a comic book artist. “Her art is like what you see in Basim and Majid magazines,” he said, referring to Arabic children’s magazines that gained popularity in the 90s. “Her drawings are so impressive. When I first saw them, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
He added that many people are impressed with her work, and she has many followers, especially from Japan.
The proud dad believes that with the right kind of support and guidance, Salama's work could earn her a living.
Meanwhile, his sons Rashid and Ahmed are athletic and enjoy sporting activities like running and swimming. They have exceptional stamina which, he said, with the right support, would help them compete at advanced levels.
He explained that more comprehensive vocational centres are still needed in Abu Dhabi to help autistic children and young adults develop their skill sets and keep them engaged.
“Many autistic children are talented and creative; they just need more opportunities and a place where they can build on their abilities. Then, when the time is right, it will be easier to integrate them into a suitable work environment.”
The way forward
Sharifa Yateem, owner and clinical director of the Sharifa Yateem Centre for Rehabilitation (www.sharifayateem.ae), affirmed it is important to highlight the importance of pre-vocational training programmes or transitioning programmes that allow the exploration of skills, talents and interests of people on the spectrum.
“It is known that individuals with special interests can contribute substantially to the economy, such as in the areas of technology, arts, music, pastoral support, sciences and many more,” she said.
Sharifa — who is also recognised as the first Emirati to become a board-certified behaviour analyst and autism expert — said she has met many individuals with autism who were supported to live independently and maintain full-time jobs.
However, she added, in many countries, there is still much to be desired. In the UK, for instance, only 22 per cent of autistic adults are in any kind of employment, according to data published by the Office for National Statistics in UK.
“One of the major pillars of the UAE’s vision for the future is the employment initiative that focuses on inclusive employment policies and programmes. I am proud to see that the UAE is one of the first countries in the Middle East that is closing this [inclusive employment] gap."
Sharifa believes creating a bridge between schools and universities with vocational training programmes would best enhance inclusive employment. "An approved certification vocational programme can raise inclusive employment possibilities,” she said.
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