Every country responding to the increasing prevalence of autism has its own particular hurdles to clear.
For the Sultanate of Oman in the Middle East, those hurdles include “a wide geographical distribution, making access difficult for diagnostic and rehabilitation services; social stigma and lack of community awareness, forcing parents to go outside the country for services; and very few trained specialists and teachers,” explains Dr. Amira Al Raaidan.
Her many titles hint at her responsibilities in Oman: Head of the Mental Health Department; Director for Health Education and Awareness Programs; Senior Medical Officer in the addiction unit at Al Massarah Hospital; Head of the Health Committee at Oman Special Olympics Association… the list goes on.
Oman shares land borders with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. It is a country resolved to respond effectively to what it now calls the “tsunami of children with autism.”
Partially because of a lack of infrastructure to diagnose conditions like autism, Oman is one of many countries where the prevalence of autism is believed to be significantly underreported. But the signals were growing louder that the country would not be immune to this public health challenge, and would have to mobilize a response.
“Several years ago, we started seeing highly educated mothers leaving their jobs to look after their children diagnosed with autism,” explains Dr. Al Raaidan. “Others began traveling out of the country to search for solutions — for diagnosis, rehabilitation services, or school programs.”
Families approached the Ministries of Health, Social Development, and Education for help and, in turn, Omani leaders looked to the U.S. for expertise. The U.S. State Department connected Dr. Al Raaidan with the National Autism Center at May Institute, and so began our relationship with her and her colleagues.
Under the auspices of the State Department, we sent three teams of May clinical experts to Oman over the course of a year to provide training to key individuals and groups, with the goal of assisting Oman in laying the foundation needed to help the country effectively tackle the upsurge in autism diagnoses and develop effective systems of care. Psychologists, social workers, special needs teachers, and parents from across the country filled the training venues, eager for information about diagnosing and treating autism.
Members of the government-sponsored Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Project are now tackling multiple initiatives. “We activated early screening services as part of our primary health care system,” says Dr. Al Raaidan. “We have also prepared an ASD policy for intra-departmental use, and to guide our country’s efforts. The drafted policy is under review by the World Health Organization.”
The collaboration continues. “I believe our countries — Oman and the United States — share the goal of improving the services offered to children with autism and to their families,” adds Dr. Al Raaidan. “The National Autism Center at May Institute has tremendous expertise to offer us. We have already seen the impact of the trainings here over the past year. We are looking forward to continue learning from the knowledge and experience of its representatives.”
Her goal? “I hope that we can empower the Omani people and improve the quality of life for these Omani autistic children and their families,” she replies. “They deserve the opportunity to be a productive group in our society.” And the work won’t stop there. “Ultimately, I hope to establish a national center that will serve as a role model for our neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council.”
If her passion, energy, and dedication are any indication of future success, we are hopeful for the children and families of Oman.
A person or group who has commanding authority or influence