DUBAI // Latifa was overwhelmed when she found out her son had autism.
"I remember in the beginning it was so difficult," Latifa said. "I didn't know what to do, where to go."
But about a year after the diagnosis, a path opened. She found out about a new government programme for Emirati children with disabilities.
Latifa immediately enrolled Abdulaziz in the Dubai Early Childhood Development Centre.
"They gave me a plan, I had training, and things became somehow easier," she said.
Three years later Abdulaziz, now 7, attends a mainstream school.
The Dubai Community Development Authority (CDA) launched the centre in 2009 after a government study found there was a lack of services for young children with disabilities.
The programme is based on the idea of early intervention: physiotherapy, speech therapy, behavioural therapy, special education and family support before the child turns six.
The centre employs 12 therapists and four service coordinators who look after 55 children for free. More than 100 children are on the waiting list.
"For us as locals, we're lucky to have such a centre," said Latifa. "I have other friends who are non-local. It's difficult."
A recent CDA survey found only a third of Dubai residents who use social services were satisfied with efforts to include young people with disabilities in mainstream schools.
The centre is one of the authority's key solutions for the issue.
"Most commonly, each family wants to see their child as independent as possible, so independence is the main goal for each child," said Dr Bushra Al Mulla, the centre's director. "The family wants to see their kids included in society."
As a child approaches school age, centre workers meet staff at the school, provide training for teachers and arrange individualised education programmes.
In the 2011-2012 school year, 39 children from the centre attended 26 schools.
But even with guidance, the process was not easy, said Latifa.
"I had to go to eight or nine schools before one accepted my child," she said. "And even if the schools accept, not all the schools have the support."
Efforts to include children with disabilities are still new, said Mohammed Fawzi, director of the Early Intervention Centre at Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services.
"Most of the schools, they are not ready to be integrated schools," Mr Fawzi said. "There are some schools but this has just started recently."
The Sharjah centre, established in 1994, had the first early-intervention programme in the country. It cares for children of all nationalities.
For expatriate families the cost of early intervention can be frustrating, said Dr Hibah Shata, who founded her own programme - the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre in Dubai - because she could not find services for her autistic daughter.
Children with autism can need up to 40 hours of behavioural therapy a week.
"I wish the insurance would cover these costs," Dr Shata said. "Few insurance companies do."
But Dr Al Mulla said that for every Dh1 spent on early intervention, Dh7 is saved on costs later in the child's life.
Mr Fawzi said: "The best thing is to reach the children as quickly as possible and to prevent any further complications, immediately after or even before discovering the disability."
Latifa noticed her son was different from other children when he was three.
"He was not talking the way he should, just a few words," she said. "I put him in the school and the teacher told me he was not playing with other kids, just sitting and looking out the window."
When she enrolled Abdulaziz at the centre, staff visited her home and worked with her family to set goals.
"When we have a child with a disability, that doesn't mean we need to pull them out of their natural environment," said Dr Al Mulla. "We provide their services in the environment. We go to them."
The earlier a family takes a child for help, the better, said Dr Al Mulla, who has a 12-year-old son with autism.
One family signed up a girl with Down syndrome when she was only one month old. Now 2, the girl started walking on time and enrolled in a nursery.
"You should see the mother," said Dr Al Mulla, describing her as a role model. "She's very positive."