x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

New centres to ease special needs shortage

Plans to construct at least three state-of-the-art autism centres in the capital and Al Ain will ease a shortage of school spaces for special needs children.

ABU DHABI // Plans to build at least three state-of-the-art autism centres in the capital and Al Ain will ease a shortage of school spaces for special needs children, advocates said yesterday.

Two of the new facilities will replace existing centres in Abu Dhabi, allowing them to expand in a field where waiting lists are common.

"I think it's much needed," said Daniel Gould, the clinical director of the New England Centre for Children - Abu Dhabi.

The non-profit school in Al Nahyan Camp has 56 pupils, but will be able to enrol 96 when it moves to a facility in Mohammed Bin Zayed City, Mr Gould said. That building should be completed later this year.

The Abu Dhabi Centre for Autism, a government facility in Al Mafraq, also plans to move to a new building, said its director Aysha Al Mansouri.

"Especially because cases are rising at this time, we need more space for them, and we need more teachers," Ms Al Mansouri said. "This one here, it is too small for them."

The new facility will be in Al Muroor, she said.

A UK architect designed the building specifically for people with autism, taking into account factors such as the lighting, said Kathleen Austrin, special needs adviser for the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs, a government agency.

"It is about providing for them an environment which is conducive for reducing anxiety and supporting learning," Ms Austrin said.

The land has been primed for construction, she said.

The agency also plans to build a new autism centre in Al Ain, Ms Austrin said.

On Monday the Abu Dhabi Executive Council approved plans for six special needs centres across the emirate.

A spokesman for the council yesterday declined to say which projects had been approved. Ms Al Mansouri and Mr Gould said they believed their new buildings were among the six.

"There's obviously a great need for more services for individuals with disabilities, and I think this shows a great commitment on the part of the Abu Dhabi Government," Mr Gould said.

The Zayed Higher Organisation oversees seven care and rehabilitation centres across the emirate, plus the Abu Dhabi Centre for Autism and several sports and vocational centres. There are also a handful of privately-run special needs schools in the capital.

But Viviane Huion, the mother of a 12-year-old boy with autism, said finding support had been difficult when her family moved here six years ago.

"I've heard of people being on waiting lists for years," said Ms Huion, 47, from the Netherlands.

She said she felt lucky to find a space for her son at the Future Centre for Special Needs in Musaffah.

Ms Huion welcomed the Executive Council announcement. However, she said that the country needed to focus on attracting and retaining qualified special education teachers.

"They are not spending too much on salaries," she said. "There are lovely people working in there, but a lot of lovely people are leaving because they're not getting what they need."

vnereim@thenational.ae