x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Children with autism encouraged to get creative at free Abu Dhabi art classes

Organisations have teamed up to offer children with autism a programme that encourages them to be themselves while expressing their creativity through art.

ABU DHABI // Organisations have teamed up to offer children with autism a programme that encourages them to be themselves while expressing their creativity through art.

The six-week afternoon art class matches the children with volunteers for a weekly one-hour art class taught by Start, a non-profit organisation specialising in running art workshops.

The programme is offered for free to any autistic child between ages seven and 14. It was organised by Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation and Goals UAE, in partnership with Start, Emirates Autism Society and Mushrif Central Park.

The first session was held on Wednesday, but parents who wish to enroll their child are encouraged to contact Goals UAE, as limited seating is still available. The workshops are held in a classroom at Mushrif Central Park where each children is seated next to a volunteer “buddy” who guides the students

The children were handed a blank canvas and led step-by-step, line-by-line how to draw a colourful scene of goldfish swimming in blue waters.

For nine-year-old Suhail Al Sharqi, the buddy system makes all the difference, said his mother, Dr Michele Ziolkowski.

“It’s really, really good because they build up a relationship, trust, understanding and acceptance,” said Dr Ziolkowski. “It’s all so important for our kids to feel as though they are part of something. I think with Goals in particular, not only has it given our kids this opportunity for extracurricular activities, but it has also created a community feel, a community base for our children.

“Our kids, they’re safe, they’re accepted, they’re understood, and I think also it’s not just for children, but it’s been of benefit for the parents as well just being able to chat with other parents who may be in a similar situation or may not have anyone else to talk to about what’s going on with their child or the challenges they are facing at home.”

Khawla Barley, who started Goals UAE last year after failing to find any extracurricular activities for her autistic son, recruited the volunteers from local high schools American Community School and Raha International School.

“I think one thing that all the kids benefit from is the social interaction,” said Mrs Barley. “A child with autism, this is one of their most significant challenges, so they need extra practice, and yet they’re getting less because people don’t know how to interact with them, they find them quirky so they shy away.”

“The more the contact hours between the kids and the volunteers and the buddies, that is what will really over time naturally change people’s perceptions and naturally develop actual inclusion.”

Linda Bailey, a behaviour analyst with the New England Centre for Children, volunteers with the student volunteers.

“I love this programme. It gives students with autism something to do after school, which I think is lacking for a lot of kids in general, so especially for students that have special needs there’s not a lot out there for them,” she said.

The children’s artwork will be exhibited at the The Galleria mall April 10 to 30, during Abu Dhabi Festival. Goals UAE is also organising a basketball camp for autistic children in March.

For more information or to register for the art workshop, email goalsuae@gmail.com.

rpennington@thenational.ae