When I arrived in Qatar four years ago, I was told that there was very little understanding of autism, and virtually no services for school-aged children. People feared autism and did not want to tell anyone if their child had been diagnosed as it was an embarrassment for the parents and the family. Parents were seeking therapies which were touted as “curing” autism and flying around the world to try to find help for their child.
I am so happy to say that, today, the understanding and service provision for children with autism has greatly improved, not only within Qatar Foundation, but across Qatar. But how did we get here?
Qatar Foundation created Renad Academy to fill the many gaps for children and families experiencing autism. The school was created to model best practices which have been researched and proven to be effective for children with autism. All staff are trained in these strategies, each of which is applied to the children differently, depending on their need. We are not a one-size-fits-all school.
Every child with autism has different strengths and weaknesses, and we equip ourselves with multiple tools and strategies to use when teaching, depending on the student and the situation at hand. For example, many of our children speak, so we encourage them to use their verbal communication as a means to express themselves. However, about half of our students do not yet speak, meaning we communicate with them using pictures, while encouraging verbal approximations. Every minute of every day, we are applying a strategy to teach our children in a way that will have meaning to each of them as individuals.
These strategies are so life-changing for our students that we also work on teaching their families the same skills so they may use them in their home. Our staff spend hours with each family to explain to them what we have learned about their child. We support them in embracing the many emotions which come from having a child with autism – from frustration to celebration of the gains their child has made. Sometimes we are the only ones who really understand what their lives are like and who can teach them ways to improve their experiences; and so, we practically become members of their extended family.
Sherri L. Miller, Director of Renad Academy
Renad Academy has supported children and families, but what has had the greatest impact on Qatar is the collaboration we have developed with countless centers, businesses and schools to spread our knowledge and experiences. Hundreds of professionals have now been trained by our staff on how to engage with a child with autism in a way that is comfortable to that child, including swimming centers, football coaches, nannies, librarians, and the staff of commercial stores, activity centers, and even airlines. We run events to raise awareness of autism in Qatar and spread the word that no one should ever feel ashamed of it.
We are proud of our children and the wonderful way they interact with the world. It is us who need to see the world as they do, so that our minds and hearts can grow. Acceptance is an action, and Renad Academy is leading Qatar in its acceptance of autism.