Jeddah Autism Center: 25 Years of Empowering Autism Awareness

Clock Icon May 10, 2019
Families with autistic children had limited support before the opening of the JAC.

Families with autistic children had limited support before the opening of the JAC. (Source: Pexels)

JAC (Jeddah Autism Center) celebrated its 25th anniversary on April, 2nd 2019. At that time there was little awareness and acceptance of autism in Saudi society. Today, it is a different picture.

In 2009 I visited the JAC at its first location. The center was located in a small villa with less than 20 staff members. I met with a handful of employees from the JAC and administration staff from the Al-Faisaliya Welfare Society. The atmosphere was full of enthusiasm for the new project, as it was the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia - with huge demand.

But the plan seemed to be incomplete at that time; it was not fully organised and many questions such as resources and the educational system seemed to hang in the air. Today, it couldn’t be more different. JAC is a fully integrated center with specialised staff who took me on a tour, telling me proudly the story of their development into the biggest autism centre in the Western Region, with a modern education system and the most students.

JAC is one of the most important projects of the Al-Faisaliya Welfare Society, a non-governmental organisation that operates from Jeddah and has branches all over Saudi Arabia. Its mission is to support and develop the abilities of autistic children to take care of themselves and achieve independence in life. Al-Faisaliya Welfare Society’s projects also focus on women, children and s’ people of determination affairs.

How it all started?

The idea for JAC in Saudi Arabia came from a Kuwaiti lady, Samera Alsaad. In 1999 Mrs Alsaad was searching for a school for her autistic daughter. When she couldn’t enrol her in any school, she decided to educate herself on autism - travelling all around the world and eventually setting up a center in Kuwait. Following the success in Kuwait, she decided to create awareness about autism and traveled the Arab region to set up workshops and similar centers.

Until a decade ago there was barely any understanding of autism in Saudi society. Parents with an autistic child either did not understand their child’s condition or didn’t go to the doctor because there were not enough specialist physicians to diagnose autism. Some families preferred to send their children abroad for education, sometimes out of a perceived shame and embarrassment in facing society with an autistic child. Other parents couldn’t handle the severity of their loved one’s condition, or found there was no center to accept them.

For those who couldn’t afford to send their children abroad, though, it was a different story. They had to leave school at a certain stage or had no schooling at all. Ultimately, the situation was stressful for a family with an autistic child. At least younger generations of parents understood that they and their children needed professional support.

As a result, the number of children enrolling in JAC increased, and more classes and teachers were needed. More people meant a bigger place and the welfare society moved to a new and bigger location.

Support and Development go together

In the meantime, corporate social responsibility (CSR) developed as a basic part of Saudi companies’ strategy over the last decade. Thanks to increasing CSR activities, there was sponsorship for programs, presentations, and workshops. The new JAC building was funded by Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC), who manufacture diversified chemicals on a global scale.

Another big sponsor is the Al Olayan Group, a private multinational enterprise, which sponsors training programs for teachers. The Saudi government, represented by the Saudi Ministry of Urban and Social Affairs, supports JAC by paying fees for Saudi students and is also responsible for administrative affairs of charities.

JAC educates autistic children

JAC’s main goal is to give autistic children the ability to have a normal life, ensuring a prosperous professional and personal future in which they can lead independent lives. JAC provides education in reading, writing, sciences, and humanities. It has ongoing tests for its students through which teachers can estimate the child’s development and adjust the teaching program accordingly.

Besides education, teachers at JAC equip children with the tactics to deal with their reactions and emotions. Each child gets his or her own training program based on the stage of IQ, needs, level of abilities and skills.

Boys leave JAC at 16, and girls at 18. At this stage, a child, whether boy or girl, will have completed his or her basic education.

The next stages are vocational training for the students either in government institutions or private enterprises. Although much has been achieved, a lot more still needs to be done. Many little obstacles still remain that are essential to the success of JAC; one big problem they face is long waiting lists. Because of limited technical resources, not all children can be accepted at any one time. Another problem is finding qualified teachers who are willing to take on such a huge responsibility.

The strong training programs teachers receive made many qualified teachers leave the center and establish their own autism centers in Jeddah - or other cities in Saudi Arabia.

JAC Guide at Home as well

JAC became a role model for other centers in the region given the educational, social and psychological programs it provides for children. Home care is a crucial part in the support of an autistic child; stability and routine are particularly important.

Yet in Saudi culture, the concept of accepting the other remains a problem. For many, an autistic child appears as “just” a normal child with improper behaviour. As a result, some parents do not dare to go out with their children out of fear of being embarrassed by challenging behaviours in public.

The role of the father is usually limited and not involved in the upbringing of the child. In some cases, the father does not even want to accept that his child has autism, and, therefore, doesn’t follow the agreed course for the child’s upbringing. Another burden for the mother is that in many cases she can’t rely on external help - grandmothers, aunts - as they have little understanding of autism or a lack of knowledge of how to behave around autistic children.

Worst of all, many mothers see themselves as the reason that “made” their child autistic. JAC offers specialiSed training to mothers of children with autism to help them overcome the psychological impact.

Hope and Challenges

After 30 years of supporting autistic children and their families, one of JAC’s proudest achievements is merging autistic children into regular schools.

Many local and international schools in Saudi Arabia now allocate spaces for children with autism, adapting their spaces and curriculums to integrate them into school life.

Others now have vocational training and learn craft skills according to their preferences, needs and desires. In addition to some academic education, skills in dealing with independent and community living are all being developed. The CSR programmes have led to work-based opportunities for those who have targeted skills, too.

Still, despite all these efforts, lack of awareness and acceptance by society remains a challenge for JAC, and autism in KSA generally.

Understanding of autism leads to acceptance, and people getting involved in teaching, volunteering and contributions will increase this.

In my view, how a society deals with fringe groups and the disadvantaged is a major marker for the maturity of the society itself.

Consequently, it is not only the JAC that faces a lot of work, but Saudi society itself.

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