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Saudi dad of autistic child says autism not a disease

Hassan Dennaoui with his son Ahmad.
ABU DHABI: To mark World Autism Day, Saudi Hassan Dennaoui spoke to CNN’s “Connect the World” with Becky Anderson about how his 6-year-old son Ahmad’s diagnosis has pushed him to raise awareness about autism in the Arab world.
A few years ago, Hassan — better known as Big Hass, and the host of Saudi Arabia’s first FM hip-hop radio show — moved his family to the UAE following Ahmad’s diagnosis. Hassan now uses radio and social media to challenge how the Arab world views autism.
“In 2010 we were blessed with a baby boy, and three to four years down the line we found out he’s autistic,” he said, adding that the move from Jeddah to Dubai was aimed at providing his son with the right atmosphere to excel.
“We moved here (the UAE) exactly a year ago, and now he’s starting to speak. He’s starting to be much more aware of his surroundings.”
When discussing how this experience has affected him and his work, Hassan said: “When I say on the air that my son is autistic and that I’m not ashamed of it — and when I take a picture with my son, for example — I always use the hashtag #AutismisNotADisease or #AutismParent.”
He added: “Some people are a bit rude. They say, ‘Why are you so proud? He’s disabled.’ And I engage in the discussion. I think that’s what we want in the Arab world. As a radio host that’s what I try to do.”
Hassan explained what it is like for those dealing with autism and Down’s syndrome in Saudi Arabia: “They’re boxed down, put in houses with a ‘nanny’ while the parents are out, and that really brings tears to my eyes.”
His son being autistic “has opened another dimension for me,” he said, “supporting local (music) talents, changing perceptions about hip-hop, talking about my son, talking about how he changed me, how he made me more patient.”
Big Hass realized his passion for Arabic hip-hop in 2008 after discovering local hip-hop artists. “I started listening to hip-hop from Syria, from Iraq, from Palestine. I’m like, wow!”
He said rappers grew to become his primary news source: “I’d listen to them and educate myself on what’s going on in the region. See 99.9 percent of Arabic music is about love. You know we have other issues: Community issues, social issues and political issues.”
Hassan concluded his discussion with CNN by saying: “I want Ahmad, my son, to be the person he is destined to be, to become a man that can be dependent on himself, which is very challenging when it comes to autism, but I’ll definitely fight for that.”

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