DUBAI // Life changed for Dr Hibah Shata the day her daughter Sarah was diagnosed with autism.
Dr Shata found that the help available in the UAE was limited, and faced the choice of moving to another country to seek help, or staying put and working to improve services here.
She chose the latter, and in 2008 the dentist cofounded the Child Early Intervention Medical Centre, a specialist clinic that pioneered the provision of a therapy known as applied behavioural analysis in the UAE. The intensive one-to-one therapy is designed to improve a child's language, social and academic abilities, and the aim is to equip a youngster with the skills needed to attend a normal school.
Dr Shata said there was a stigma attached to the condition in the UAE and the rest of the Arab world. "People are shy about saying their child has a problem," she said. "I am not shy, I think my child is wonderful. I am very proud of her and her achievements, she works hard and has achieved a lot."
Sarah, 6, has received the therapy for more than four years and is among those who now go to school.
"It is very important that people have hope," said Dr Shata.
"I was told that my child would never grow out of autism by the president of a children's society overseas. He told me there was no treatment for autism. Well I'm telling him today there is treatment for autism, my child is going to school and she's almost recovered."
Dr Shata, a Saudi from Mecca who moved to Dubai to get married, has since gone on to co-found a second centre that bridges the gap between the early intervention stage and school.
She is the managing director of both centres, which work with partners such as the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, Red Crescent, Zayed University and the Emirates Medical Association.
"We have been able to help a lot of children," she said. "When Sarah was diagnosed I learnt, like everyone else, as a mother and as a professional. As a mother I learnt how to manage my child, I learnt skills and how to communicate and it is very important that we pass that to other families so that they are able also to learn how to manage their children. We needed to get the families to know that these children can be helped."
Autism is a developmental disorder that appears within the first three years of a child's life and affects social and communication skills. One out of every 110 children worldwide is affected.
"If they don't get early diagnosis and early intervention the chances of the child recovering becomes less and less over time," Dr Shata, 44, said. "The children who show fast recovery are the ones who we start very early, at 18 months.
"Part of our strategy is to raise awareness. One of the problems we face is people think autism is similar to mental retardation, but some of them have very high IQs."
She said children with the condition did not always receive the services they needed, and in some cases they were never taken out of the house.
"There are some families who really don't know what to do with these children. What happens is when they don't have communication skills they tend to cry and scream and engage in aggressive behaviour because they can't tell you what they want and you don't understand, so they become very frustrated and use every method but words to express their feelings. This makes them very difficult to take out."
Dr Shata's achievements were recognised by the Emirates Women Award judges, who gave her the 2011 prize for leadership.
She said: "The good leader is the person who is able to communicate his vision and get people to follow him. He is able to listen, to act appropriately in different situations and to form a team and work within it, and knows how to get the best out of the people around him."
She said it was difficult to be a working woman because of the need to balance the demands of a job with the duties of a mother and a wife.
"A man has to go to work, come back home and that's it, but the woman has to be good at home and good at work."
The closing date for applications for the Emirates Women Award scheme, run by the Dubai Quality Group, is April 19. Emiratis and expatriates can apply. Details are at www.ewa.ae