Joined by members of the local community, the heads of local schools, businessmen, sportsmen and scores of attendees, people gathered last Friday in Alexandria to celebrate World Autism Day. The event took place at the Meme Foundation for Autism, a newly born NGO that works to promote the inclusion and empowerment of children and their families in the city and beyond.
“My child developed well in just three months, especially his motor, communication and speech skills. He takes music, art and handicraft classes in addition to the other skills he gains during his day here,” said Dalia Emad, a mother of a six-year-old child with autism, describing the benefits of the Meme Foundation for her family.
“A centre that is just specialised in autism can help children develop faster and be more focused than other centres that might just give a two-hour session in one week,” she added.
One issue with autism for many people can be diagnosis. It took Emad around six months to realise that her son had autism, for example. “When he turned two years old, he was late in speaking and had difficulties interacting. I did my own research while checking with doctors and different specialists. He turned out to have a disease that made him autistic,” Emad said.
Unfortunately, some parents can still deny that their children have autism. Others may hide their children behind closed doors. This makes the children’s cases worse, and they may end up having severe autism instead of allowing the child to become an independent citizen.
But knowing that your child has autism can create problems in any couple. Instead of helping the child, there can be dangers regarding his or her progress. Fathers might even leave the family, for example. “I know parents who fall into major problems upon finding that their son or daughter is facing autism or any other disability,” said one mother of an 11-year-old girl with autism.
“Children need to see their parents being strong and happy and working together for their benefit. If they see their parents as vulnerable, weak and struggling, they could stay behind without development. We are here to raise awareness about the issue,” the mother added.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are around one and half million people with autism in Egypt. One child in every 160 gets diagnosed with autism spectrum syndrome, essential in providing rehabilitation and therapy for children.
The Meme Foundation provides care and guidance to children with autism from six to 11 years old. Like the Egyptian Autistic Society in Cairo, it is a daily care centre that offers activities like the arts, speech, music, PE and other things to children with autism as part of a tailored school system that enables them to realise their potential.
When organising the events around World Autism Day, Meme’s managers thought of both entertaining parents and their children and of raising autism awareness more generally.
Uniting for inclusion
“We created very simple tasks that are available at home for all parents and their children, such as colouring eggs, making soap with glitter, baking cupcakes or peeling green beans and other vegetables,” said Ola Gemeiy, centre director at the Meme Foundation for Autism.
“They might like the idea and grow up to be an important chef in the future. Who knows,” she added
Such simple and creative ideas can help children to work on different skills without tantrums. “Working on something and achieving it makes the children happy and feel accomplished,” Gemeiy added.
Formerly a head teacher at several schools in Alexandria, she now dreams of expanding the Meme Foundation to include other schools, universities, clubs and centres around Alexandria and across Egypt.
“This day marks a real announcement of the foundation that we are in Alexandria. Anyone who wants to help or support us by any means or anyone who has relevant experience or who knows a person who could need us is welcome to come and find us for our help and support,” said Maged Mansi, a board member of the foundation, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.
Mansi said that compassion was not enough in treating autism. He said it was more about sharing experiences and guiding people better.
Sara Moussa has a relative facing autism, which was why she decided to work in this field to help her relative and other people. “We want to help children with autism blend more effectively into the community, so that they can grow up feeling more included,” she said.
“It makes all the difference when parents begin the road early with their child,” she added. As there is no cure for autism spectrum disorder, psychological and social interventions can positively affect a child’s life and facilitate their integration into the educational system and society.
In collaboration with the Alex Runners, the celebrations to mark World Autism Day started with a run on the Alexandria Corniche early in the morning.
“Just wearing t-shirts with the slogan ‘Run for Autism’ made people ask what autism was and how they could help,” Rana Sadek, the project and communications officer, told the Weekly.
“Our aim is to help create inclusive communities at school for all children, and not inclusive only for what we might call normal or typical children. We are all different, so accepting others is what will make us all stronger,” Sadek added.
Virtual reality (VR) also played a role in World Autism Day. VRapeutic, a research-based software company based in Cairo, provided VR-based therapeutic solutions that focus on learning difficulties and different disorders.
By bringing in games and one-to one activities, the company provided a wonderful show for the children at the event, who worked intensively on developing their skills in the one-hour show.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly