Qatar gives considerable attention to those with disabilities in order to integrate them into society, and make their lives easier to live. Being as Qatar suggested to the United Nations that 2nd April be World Autism Day, and were approved and implemented, The Shafallah center is the tangible evidence of this attention. Founded in 1999, it is one of the few centers in the world that takes care not only of people with disabilities, including mental disabilities, cerebral palsy and rare conditions, but also of autistic and Down syndrome children. The center seeks mainly to integrate students in the community naturally, and provide them with the tools necessary to do so. To discover more about the Shafallah Center and its distinctive role in society, we spoke with Mr. Mohammed Bader Al-Sada, Executive Director of Shafallah.
Tell us a little about Shafallah; how many students can the center accommodate?
Shafallah Center cares for about 640 students starting from the age of four, 60 percent of which are Qataris. The center offers premium services and perhaps one indicator of this is that the center has almost 760 employees. Last year, the behavior analysis program, prepared by specialists from the center, was adopted at Shafallah. This program has been accredited and is the first of its kind in the Arab world, and in the Arabic language. Accordingly, the Shafallah Center has been certified to train other centers in this service, which is something that we take much pride in.
You offer a variety of educational programs for students in the center; what system of education do you follow?
The educational program in Shafallah Center is divided into three phases:
Phase I is called Early Childhood and starts from the age of three to six years, which is similar to kindergarten. Medical specialists work on training and rehabilitating the students. After this stage, the students are divided according to their condition: those who can integrate attend a normal school with their peers and are supervised by the Integration Unit in the Ministry of Education.
Phase II deals with those who are unable to integrate and continue in the center. They learn essential life skills, such as how to eat and how to hold pen and paper. We also work with those who can comprehend basic education, such as letters and sentences. This stage continues until the ages of 13 or 14 years, after which the students’ potential is evaluated and, if they are ready, they are integrated into regular schools.
Phase III includes students after the age of 14, where they enter in another department called Rehabilitation and Job Training, and continue until they are 19, 20 or 21 years old, depending on their capabilities. At this stage, the students qualify and train on practical life skills that can help them enter the labor market and make a living in the future.
How successful has Shafallah Center been in integrating students into the labor market?
In the past year, 194 students of varying abilities graduated and 114 of them have become employees in the various sectors of the State. Our main objective is integration. Whoever cannot be integrated into the work environment, we continue working with at home, to break the barrier and isolation between them and society, starting with close family and relatives. Modern equipment helps us in this area, where we teach students who cannot express themselves how to communicate with the community around them. This helps students with limited movement to communicate with their eyes and express what they want through pictures. Some students have very advanced mental abilities, and their disability does not prevent them from learning. Using these devices, they are now able to write full sentences using their eyes only, by focusing on the characters on the keyboard. This enables students to communicate almost naturally with the environment.
Some of our students have very high capabilities, but prefer isolation or are afraid of people.. We worked with those students by creating a new experience in cooperation with Qatar Airways, I would like to extend my gratitude for their support and especially the company’s CEO Mr. Akbar Al Baker. Basically what the students did was work on packing the complementary bags that are handed out in first class. Twenty-five students participated in this experiment for a year; they impressed the inspectors so much that they were hired by Qatar Airways. The students succeeded in filling 35,000 bags perfectly.
How do you take care of student health in the center?
The center coordinates directly with the Ministry of Health and its accredited doctors. In addition, we have a Psychological Service Department because students, like all people, are exposed to emotional or mental difficulties. This service works to help resolve these problems and liaise with parents.
Qatar provides a variety of services for people with disabilities, despite the country’s population being small. Under the guidance of His Highness the Emir, all services are provided free of charge, not only central services but also additional services such as meals for children, transportation and other services needed by the students.
Health & Life Magazine also spoke with Dr. Mohammed al-Atrash, Director of Psychological Services and Family Support at the Shafallah Center.
What are the most important things that fall under the responsibility of your administration and what are its most notable achievements?
The basic services that we offer in our department are divided into three sections:
The Social Services Department provides a link between the parents and the center, following up on the child at every stage. It also regulates and organizes activities for the students. That way, the students integrate the skills they learn in their daily activities. This allows the student to feel normal and integrate with society though activities like going to supermarkets and malls.
The department also creates community awareness of the students’ capabilities and potential, demonstrating that they can do just as well as many other children.
The Family Counseling Division provides counseling services individually and collectively, to parents and students. It also offers support services to people who have similar problems, enabling them to meet with each other under the supervision of specialists, to exchange experiences and provide support. The Family Counselling Division also conducts outreach activities, either through lectures or in partnership with other groups.
The Psychological Services and Evaluations Division evaluates and diagnoses any student wishing to enroll in Shafallah, to ensure that the appropriate service is provided. This includes social, medical and psychological evaluations, as well as physical therapy evaluations, occupational therapy and evaluation, assessment of speech therapy and more.
In addition to the evaluations mentioned, we carry out autism diagnoses to determine whether a student has autism characteristics. This is done by trained professionals using the latest methods, such as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS).
What are the biggest challenges you face in the center?
The biggest challenge is to find specialists trained on the latest scientific methods and able to deal with the students. The second challenge is the waiting list. Another challenge is the large number of laws that regulate the use of modern tools. However, we were recently able to get approval for Shafallah to conduct behavior analysis training, and also to train specialists.
Can you tell us about behavioral analysis and the success of using modern tools to communicate with students?
Behavioral analysis is a new program being used with the students at the center; it covers several aspects:
- Firstly, some students’ behaviors are undesirable, and often the student cannot express why he or she behaves in this way. We use behavior analysis methods to understand the reasons behind the behaviors and develop plans to teach students alternative and more positive behaviors.
- The second using modern tools in teaching, for example, developing a speech evaluation and essential skills evaluation to those who are autistic.
- We use applied scientific methods to determine the students’ strengths and weaknesses and come up with a personalized plan of action.
- Our results are confirmed when parents see the change in their children. In the past, we used to teach the skills and hope for the best. Now, with the use of behavioral analysis, we are sure that skills are acquired.
Health & Life magazine also met with a number of parents at the Shafallah Center. We spoke with Fahad’s mother:
What are the difficulties faced by children with autism in Qatar?
Finding a suitable center for an autistic child is difficult. And the lack of specialists is considered a big problem, especially in the private centers. There have been situations where a child has been beaten or tied down because the centers do not know how to deal with them. The only center where you can truly feel your child is safe is Shafallah.
Swimming is a good hobby as it allows the child to exert his energy, but there are no clubs for autistic children due to lack of specialists. They began to establish centers and clubs with pools for people with special needs such as Al Gharafa, but this is subject to the availability of a specialist for this activity. The other problem occurs in the summer, as there are no summer centers.
How has Fahad’s condition improved?
The first thing I noticed was a change in his behavior. Before attending Shafallah, he had a private tutor working with him. Now, with the help of Shafallah, Fahad has improved greatly.
What are some of the most memorable moments with your child?
The best times where when he overcame some undesirable behaviors. When I see Fahad achieve something new or learn something, I thank God for it. But I am afraid of the future; I would love to integrate him in a normal school, but that can’t happen due to his hyperactivity.
Would you like to say something to the community?
I wish the community would be more conscious, and that parents would be more observant of their children, especially in their infant years — that’s when autistic characteristics appear. Prompt action is key. A child should not be deprived from the joy of simple everyday things; let him play with his siblings like a normal child. Society must understand that autistic children are not crazy.
We also spoke with Abdulrahman’s mother:
What does Qatar offer those who are autistic?
First off, I consider Abdulrahman lucky that he wasn’t on the waiting list long. However, it is sad to see that there are other children, in more difficulty than my son, who are still on the waiting list.
As for all the Autism Unit employees in Shafallah, they are very cooperative and apply the latest scientific development. The center is only missing one thing: the summer period, which lasts almost 3 months. The children have nowhere to go because there are no other clubs suitable for autistic children.
How has Abdulrahman improved?
Abdulrahman improved tremendously in the first two years at Shafallah. But I can’t say that the condition has improved much. This is because he has a minor autistic level, so he discovers things faster than other children with autism.
Can you describe the most beautiful moments with your child?
With Abdulrahman, I’ve shared many sweet moments. First, when they told me that he is able to be integrated in a normal school. The second best moment was unforgettable, when Abdulrahman participated in an international swimming competition for normal youth and won a gold medal. This was the first time Abdulrahman had ever been in the ocean. He received his training in the pool. He also won first place in a normal school’s arts and crafts competition.
What would you like society to know?
I have something to say to our beloved Government and something to society. I wish that you would accept our children and understand them, for they are different but not retarded! Be there to support them and be their anchor – because after God, they have no one else but us. The community needs to understand the nature of our children, because it is not a disability, it is an illness. Science has not yet proven that autism is in fact a disability.
I say to our beloved Government, please provide services for our children, because the earlier the intervention, the more lives saved. However, when it is too late the situation become very hard to handle. Autism comes as a shock to the parents — one that will change their entire home life — so you either absorb that shock and save your child or you live in denial and wreck your home all together.