Call to improve the services for autistic children in Oman

Oman Sunday 06/March/2016 23:13 PM
By: Times News Service
Call to improve the services for autistic children in Oman

Muscat: Parents of people suffering from autism and those campaigning to draw attention to the plight of the afflicted expressed concern about the quality of services provided in the Sultanate and urged the government to come up with a strategic plan to resolve their issues.
During a meeting between the representatives of the Ministries of Health, Education, Manpower, Social Development, campaigners and parents at the Shura Council on Wednesday, all parties presented their views on autism in Oman and possible solutions.
Hilal bin Mohammed Al Abri, speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Social Development, said during the meeting that the government has taken “serious steps to better safeguard the rights of the disabled.”
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Rehabilitation services include special education, functional rehabilitation, speech treatment and counselling. He said currently, 300 disabled children are enrolled in rehabilitation centres and 153 are on the waiting list.
He noted that new rehabilitation centres in Salalah, Sohar and Muscat will be established with the support of the private sector.
On the other hand, Al Abri said the curriculum in public schools does not currently cater to autism sufferers, that there are “weaknesses” in early diagnosis of children and that there are no rehabilitation centres for children. He added that there is a lack of specialised staff and a shortage in financial resources to improve services.
In order to improve rehabilitation and educational facilities, the Ministry will ensure more financial resources and bring in staff from abroad to assist in expanding these facilities.
Increase in prevalence
According to Dr Watfa bint Said Al Maamari, Advisor for Developmental Health of Children at the Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, there has been an increase in prevalence of autism among Omani children, with 8.5 out of 10,000 children in 2015 being afflicted, compared to 6.4 out of 10,000 children in 2014.
Yahya bin Mohammed Al Farisi, Director of Oman Autism Society, said during the meeting that the Omani health system could only determine one out of ten cases of autism.
Hilal Al Sarmi, member of the Shura Council, said the medical staff will be trained regarding autism and more rehabilitation centres will be built in the Sultanate, but pointed out that the lack of financial resources makes it difficult. “The facilities that we have now are not bad, but are not enough. In the coming period, we will ask for more resources to expand the services,” he said.
He added the Ministry of Health will bring in experts from abroad to assist Oman in improving the services to deal with those affected by autism.
He said while there is a national strategy for the disabled, but every type of disability deserves attention in its own particular way.
“Autism is a relatively new area of concern in Oman. It needs specialised knowledge to deal with it,” he said.
Parents of children suffering from autism expressed concern about the lack of facilities to diagnose the affliction and the quality of rehabilitation centres. One parent complained about the quality, or its lack, in services for her son.
“My eight year-old son is not able to speak, while he is treated in a specialised centre. And I ask the Ministry of Education: where are his rights and which school will I take him to?” she told the audience.
Another parent said: “Our children are not being treated in these facilities in a fashion that can help them develop their abilities.”
Khalid Al Malki, board member of the Oman Autism Society, told the Times of Oman that the meeting was “useful,” but the government agencies failed to come with a clear strategy with a defined time frame.
“Full services of high quality will ensure a better life for autistic people. In order to reach that goal, we need more support and more funds than before, and not just talking. This has to be implemented as soon as possible,” he said.
Mohammed Al Busaidi, member of the Shura Council, said it is difficult to implement a strategy on autism. “We have strategies, but we are facing difficulties to implement and realise them,” he said.
Al Busaidi said the Shura Council will prepare a complete report and other committees will follow up on the progress.
Meeting with Parents
Following the Shura discussions, the Times of Oman met with parents of autistic children, an initiative organised by Tariq Al Khabori, founder and team coordinator of Oman Disabled Divers Association (ODDA), where they stated that finding support for autistic children and raising awareness remains the main challenge that the parents and autism societies in Oman face.
Asad Mirza, father of an autistic child and a member of the Oman Autism Society, said lack of awareness remains one of the top challenges along with having a future plan for teens past the age of 16. Following the Majlis Al Shura discussions, Khalid Al Badawi, an advocate for Autism in Oman, commented on the meeting, saying, “Now we are in 2016 and the ministry is now understanding more about the problem.”
Sibling’s perspective
Speaking with the younger sister of an autism struck individual, who is four years her senior, Areebah Mirza, said, “It’s definitely different than having a normal brother that you can speak and talk to as well as share the same level of maturity.”
“It’s more of a challenge but I look at it as a gift which makes you appreciate all the things in the world,” she added.
Autistic children are often gifted in certain areas, with creativity being the most common. Playing a musical instrument and artistry is a natural talent among a lot of autism struck children who possess many other talents which are often overlooked.
Lubna Al Kindi, one of the parents, questioned the discussion panel during the meeting in the Majlis, asking, “Autistic children possess extraordinary talent, maybe even more than normal children. Why aren’t you
considering their talents and developing them?”
Providing a suggestion regarding ways to cater to the children’s talents and capabilities, Areebah said, “You just have to believe in them and appreciate what they have and build on that, not just consider what they can’t do.”

To get in touch: tariqh@timesofoman.com / erik@timesofoman.com ​