UAE: How 117 special needs children are living a normal life at Dubai Autism Centre

Learning about autism is key to creating a more equal social world, experts say

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Supplied photo
Supplied photo

Sherouk Zakaria

Published: Sat 2 Apr 2022, 11:40 AM

Last updated: Sat 2 Apr 2022, 10:50 PM

As the world marks World Autism Awareness Day today, Khaleej Times visited Dubai Autism Centre to document a typical day in the life of a child of determination.

In the four-storey facility, 117 students, aged between two and 21 years old, are living a normal life. They are watching movies in a cinema, getting a haircut, making their beds, reading in a library and getting their pictures taken in a photography room – leisure activities they find difficulties doing in public.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council of Dubai, visited the centre in March. In a tweet, he had said: "Dubai places the highest priority on integrating people of determination into society and providing them world-class services."

Dr Nicholas Orland, chief programme officer at Dubai Autism Centre, said this real-world environment strengthens their social behaviours for the outside world and helps them lead independent lives.

“We have children coming to the centre who are not yet able to speak, make friends or prepare their own food. Through a multidisciplinary approach, students are provided with the social skills they need to have the best quality of life.”

Robotic teaching

Students are divided into 21 classrooms across three age ranges — early intervention, school age and adolescents. Each classroom takes up six students with two teachers focusing on communication skills and social behaviour in addition to academia.

Below, a child is seen playing with a robot, which — in addition to interactive games and virtual reality — plays a major role in the classrooms at Dubai Autism Centre.

These advanced technologies enable children to better respond to instructions, apply their skills in different settings, and enhance their learning outcomes.

Sensory stimulation in dark room

Hypersensitive to sensory stimulation, autistic children receive occupational therapy in a dark room to increase students’ tolerance to lights, sounds and smells to help them adapt to social settings.

Interactive light floors, mirrors and waterbeds are used to develop gross motor skills and coordination skills.

Another point of focus in occupational therapy is teaching autistic students self-help skills such as handwriting, buttoning and dressing independently. Take a look at one of the sensory rooms at Dubai Autism Centre:

Salon, cinema, library: Leisure skills

Parents with autistic children find difficulties planning a night out due to the social and behavioural challenges their kids experience.

Therefore, these leisure activities were brought inside Dubai Autism Centre for entertainment, while developing the social skills children need in outdoor settings.

Students learn to sit still for a haircut at a salon environment, while young girls are expected to receive their first manicure and pedicure. The desensitisation programme trains students to tolerate noisy sounds of the blow dry and scissors and other expected stimuli in a typical hair salon. Watch one of the children at the centre getting a haircut:

Watching a movie in the cinema is part of any child’s or adolescent’s lifestyle.

At Dubai Autism Centre, children watch movies in a cinema setting at least once a week.

Besides entertaining children with autism who never got to experience a real cinema before, the activity equips students with light and sitting toleration and focus without performing a challenging behaviour in public. Pictured below is the 'movie theatre' at Dubai Autism Centre:

In a simulated apartment, autistic students learn practical skills, such as cleaning the table, making their beds and brushing their teeth.

The activities conducted in kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms are designed to help students achieve independence and make them active members in their homes. Here's a glimpse at one of the simulated apartments:

Brightening their world

Stunning artworks made by students can be seen across the “art room”. Painting is a core element in the autism teaching programme.

Besides teaching creativity and leisure skills, art equips students with problem-solving skills and nurtures their hobbies. Below, a child is seen working on an artwork:

Preparing for the future

Preparing for their future careers is an integral part of their curricula. Students practise their reading skills with an array of books in library.

A computer lab with modified colourful keyboards teaches children to use various online programmes or apply their learning materials on learning games as part of their vocational training.

A photography room — pictured below — also enables students to hone their photography skills and learn to stay sit for their pictures to be taken for ID or Visa procedures.


Speech language therapy is fundamental to train students to express their needs through various communication styles.

Using sign language or picture exchange communication system, children learn to communicate their needs without relying on verbal speech.

In this video, a child is learning to match images with words to effectively communicate:

At the end of the tour, Joyce Chamoun, business development manager at the centre, said nationwide community activities are rolled out on World Autism Day to raise awareness on the importance of accepting children with autism along with their parents.

“Preparing a hangout with an autistic child can be a daunting task for parents, let alone integrating them into the society.” Learning about autism, Chamoun added, is the first step to help the community accept differences and create a more equal social world.


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