RIYADH: “I can learn. I can work. I have feelings. I’m normal, just like you,” said 23-year-old Hattan to the audience at the Forum for Autism Consultants in Riyadh on Sunday.
Hattan, who taught himself English through watching movies and playing video games, told the people assembled before him he had recently returned from a student exchange program in the US where he lived almost independently — an advert for the changing attitude toward learning disabilities in the Kingdom and across the world, and what can be achieved by autism sufferers with the right guidance and support.
Organized by the King Salman Center for Disability Research (KSCDR) in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the Center for Autism Research, the Forum for Autism Consultants serves as a platform for experts to offer insight into the treatment and development of children with autism.
Titled “Ask and We Shall Answer,” the free public event was made available to any parent or family member of a child with autism, to people interested in the field, and even to casual observers looking to learn more about the condition.
Autistic children in Saudi Arabia have long faced difficulties in finding support, care and guidance, but that is now changing, as Hattan’s case proves.
10 panelists, from child psychologists to neurosurgeons and speech therapists to teachers took part in a lengthy discussion at the forum, and private consultations were also on offer afterwards for members of the audience.
The panel included Dr. Ebitssam Murshid, a consultant pediatric dentist and founder of Saudi Arabia’s first special needs dental clinic, pediatric neurologist Dr. Hisham Dhalaan, and KSCDR CEO Dr. Ola Abu Sukkar.
Among the topics discussed were the lack of resources available for children and their families, the issues families faced getting access to treatment, and the lack of assistance available to adults with autism.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) are still a mystery to most Saudis. Despite a growing number of studies on the topic, concrete numbers and statistics about the prevalence of autism in the Kingdom are hard to find.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Academic Scientific Research by three students at King Saud University College of Medicine found that general knowledge of autism was poor, despite the fact that the majority of those studied knew about the existence of the disorder.
“In Saudi Arabia, underdeveloped children’s psychiatric services hide the extent of ASDs in the country,” the study said.
It is hoped that by providing more free public forums such as these, the little knowledge currently held by most citizens can grow into a more aware, understanding society.