DUBAI // At only five years old, Shayaan Qureshi has come up the perfect response to the many people who stare at him - a big, toothy smile.
"I just look straight at people and smile," said the little Bahraini resident, who was born without arms. "I tell them I don't have hands but I can do everything."
Shayaan has dysmelia, a rare, congenital upper-limb disorder. His family was recently in Dubai to meet a support group for people with special needs and their relatives.
Shayaan's mother, Fadia, first connected with the Special Families Support (SFS) group on Facebook.
"I wanted him to meet more people with special needs so he realises there are other children like him," said Fadia, an artist.
Last week, the family went to meet the group and help them celebrate their 12th anniversary, which coincided with Shayaan's birthday on December 9.
More than 60 special-needs children from Ajman, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi and Dubai crowded around a cake to celebrate his birthday.
Neena Nizar, a volunteer at SFS, said meeting Shayaan was just as encouraging for the other children.
"It was inspiring for the children to see how much Shayaan could do on his own," said Neena, who has Jansen genetic disorder and requires surgeries for joint abnormalities.
"The children realised this boy can do anything with his feet. That realisation was priceless."
Shayaan is always happy to tell strangers about his many talents and break down the barriers of pity and ignorance that surround his condition.
"I know chess, I can play video games, I have super monster cars, I can dress myself, I am learning to swim …" he rattles off.
The family decided that having Shayaan interact with strangers was very important, said Omer, Shayaan's father, who moved from Islamabad in Pakistan to Bahrain for work three years ago.
"Our objective was to take him out constantly," Omer said. "People don't know how to communicate but once he smiles the walls break down, and they want to talk and ask questions."
Shayaan's proud older brother Sheheryar, 11, is also quick to remind people not to judge Shayaan by his appearance. He points out how Shayaan eats independently with a spoon attached to an elastic band on his arm stump.
"I always tell people that he can do everything but just a little differently," Sheheryar said.
During his stay in Dubai, Shayaan also visited Mawaheb from Beautiful People, the studio that teaches art to young adults with special needs. Mawaheb is Arabic for talent.
He won a following when he used sign language with his toes to communicate with hearing-impaired youngsters.
He also beat the students in popular games such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja.
As he bent over the iPhone, students watched amazed as he briskly slid his toes back and forth to pass their scores.
"It opened a nice discussion about whether other children looked at him differently," said Margot de Ruiter, a Dutch artist who volunteers at the studio.
"We talked about how, if you are positive in life, you can overcome many things."
An Emirati autistic artist asked why he did not have robotic arms, to which Shayaan's father replied prosthetic limbs were slower and heavier.
That thinking is backed by Frank Letch, a director of Reach, the UK support group started by parents of children missing part of their arms or hands.
"You can do very little with artificial limbs," said Frank, the mayor of the British town of Crediton, who also has dysmelia. He has visited the family in Bahrain to help Shayaan perform tasks independently.
"We cannot put these on ourselves, so right from the start we are dependent on others. It's best to leave the options open, so it's fine if Shayaan uses his feet and fine if he uses a prosthesis."
The Dubai support groups plan to stay in touch with the family.
"We are just a message, a phone call, a flight away," Neena said. "It's a bridge we have built and we hope support groups will sprout up in Bahrain as well."