Dubai making huge strides in autism awareness, say experts

Families welcome progress but believe there is still more work to be done on a community level

Dubai resident Stephanie Hamilton with her daughter Ruby, who has Down syndrome and autism. Photo: Stephanie Hamilton
Powered by automated translation

Dubai has made huge strides in recent years in raising awareness of autism spectrum disorder, but there is still more work to be done, experts told The National.

In December 2022, the emirate announced its ambition to become the Middle East’s first Certified Autism Destination and is now halfway there, Myron Pincomb, CEO of the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, told The National.

The process of achieving this certification, which would make Dubai the first city outside of the US to achieve it, includes training all staff members who work at the airport, hundreds of hotels and about 60 attractions, as well as on various types of public transportation.

The training is designed to help staff better understand how to serve visitors with hidden disabilities and involves auditing locations to measure sensory inputs in public areas, such as sound levels, lighting, sights and smells.

“It’s a massive project. Typically, when we do this for a city, it takes about three years,” Mr Pincomb said.

“We have had a huge commitment from the community in Dubai, so we will potentially reach our goals within two years.”

Making travel easier for people with autism

Autism spectrum disorders are a diverse group of conditions characterised by some degree of difficulty with social interaction and communication, the World Health Organisation said. It estimates about one in 100 children has autism worldwide.

There were 4,561 registered autism spectrum disorder cases in the UAE in 2022, according to data from the Ministry of Community Development, 44 per cent of those were Emirati citizens. At the time, there were 72 specialised centres for education and rehabilitation available to people with ASD across the country.

An early detection programme developed by Emirates Health Services was introduced in 2022, screening more than 20,000 children within its first 18 months.

Travelling can be difficult for children and adults with autism for a variety of reasons, including changes in routine, unpredictability, crowds, new noises and sights, according to non-profit Autism Speaks. But these challenges can be managed with access to pre-planning resources, additional information and better understanding from staff.

Dubai International Airport was among the first destinations IBCCES certified and, in December, became the first international airport to earn the Certified Autism Centre designation.

On Monday, Emirates also announced it has achieved a Certified Autism Centre designation for all four of its Dubai check-in facilities.

“Employees across all DXB service providers have benefitted from bespoke training and awareness programmes that have reached a staggering 34,535 individuals,” Dubai Airports COO Majed Al Joker told The National.

“This has enhanced their knowledge and understanding of both visible and non-visible disabilities, empowering them to provide more effective and empathetic service and support.”

One such measure is the implementation of the Sunflower Lanyard Programme. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a globally recognised symbol that indicates the wearer has a hidden disability and may need additional support.

“Employees at DXB are trained to recognise these lanyards and provide tailored assistance, ensuring that those with non-visible disabilities receive understanding and are given help that effectively meets their individual needs,” said Mr Al Joker.

“This includes discreet recognition, priority access and clear communication to ensure a smooth and comfortable experience.”

The airport has also implemented autism-friendly infrastructure, including a travel planner that offers a step-by-step visual guide to navigating the airport. Other initiatives include two hours of free parking and special assistance at check-in, passport control, security, customs and boarding.

Community-level integration still needed

Nipa Bhuptani, founder of Applied & Behavioural Training Institute – which offers KHDA-approved training courses, early behaviour intervention programmes and community outreach – also said Dubai is doing a lot to accommodate people with autism.

“I’ve been here 33 years and the place has changed so much,” she said.

But, while initiatives like the IBCCES's are welcome, she said there is still much more to do in increasing awareness and improving integration on a community level.

“Autism is such a difficult, puzzling condition to understand,” she said, adding there is also a lack of Arabic-language resources.

“Every time I meet a family, it’s a brand new story for me. How would anyone who has never seen a person with autism know what a person with autism is like?”

Huge strides for Dubai

Stephanie Hamilton, a Dubai resident whose daughter, Ruby, 18, has Down syndrome and autism, has seen many changes in the city since Ruby was diagnosed here aged 13.

“There is so much more awareness now, and I commend the UAE government for always aiming to do better,” she said. “We welcome any initiative that not only safeguards our children with autism, but also allows user-friendly platforms and facilities, making it much easier for our children and young adults to integrate seamlessly into daily life just like their neurotypical peers.”

For the government’s initiative with IBCCES to truly succeed, however, Ms Hamilton said there needs to be complete cohesion between authorities and both public and private sector establishments.

“The success of the initiative would mean that families like us would have less stress and have a more enjoyable time when out as a family. The implementation of the lanyards in Dubai Airport has been a welcome addition to making travel less stressful … This does not mean special treatment, but rather it brings a level of understanding.”

Another initiative Ms Hamilton commends is the city lighting up major landmarks blue to mark World Autism Awareness Day, which takes place on April 2 every year.

“It is a lovely way for people with autism to be recognised and celebrated. I think that's the key point.

“Our children's diagnosis often comes with a sense of grief or despair. While raising a child with autism can be challenging, there are also many gifts that come with it, and I feel we don't celebrate these enough.”

Autism awareness in the UAE - in pictures

Updated: April 02, 2024, 3:22 AM