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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

How tenpin bowling helped one athlete to strike up friendships

The 26-year-old autistic athlete represented Kuwait at this year's Games, and his mother says it has turned him into a more social man

Ahmed Al Nasrallah, a member of Kuwait’s Special Olympic national bowling team, is one of more than 1,000 athletes from 31 taking part in the Mena Games in Abu Dhabi this week. Courtesy Special Olympics IX Mena Games
Ahmed Al Nasrallah, a member of Kuwait’s Special Olympic national bowling team, is one of more than 1,000 athletes from 31 taking part in the Mena Games in Abu Dhabi this week. Courtesy Special Olympics IX Mena Games

Ahmed Al Nasrallah abhors noise and travel, is not fond of strangers and by all accounts makes an unlikely candidate for overseas travel as a member of Kuwait’s national bowling team.

Yet on Monday morning Al Nasrallah was at the Zayed Sports City bowling alley in Abu Dhabi, playing before dozens of fans who cheered and stomped their support for the Special Olympics IX Mena Games. He is one of more than 1,000 athletes from 31 countries competing in the capital this week.

Al Nasrallah did not hear the chants of the crowd, the cries of his opponents or the clatter of pins. All he heard was Beethoven. With his earphones firmly in place, he lifted the ball and let go.

Al Nasrallah is autistic and finds solace at the bowling alley, in the path of a well-delivered ball spinning down a polished lane.

The Kuwaiti bowling team for the Special Olympics was formed last month and they have practised every day since under the supervision of coaches Sameerah Al Azmi and Myunghwan Park.

In that short time, the sport has begun to change Al Nasrallah’s interactions with the world.

Bowling, the most social of sports, has turned him into a more sociable man.

His mother, Eman Al Shubaiki, says he did not speak at all until he was 7 years old.

“He’s very positive now towards playing with a team,” Ms Al Shubaiki says. “He was isolated before. Now he’s more sociable. Now he’s very happy with his achievement. You see him smiling. When he scores, he smiles.”

It is the first time he has begun to trust people outside his family, particularly Al Azmi whose sister, Fouzeyah, is one of the team’s four members.

“Ahmed, before he would not go with strangers – anybody who was not a member of his family, you know,” said Ms Al Shubaiki. “He is very attached to me. So this is a big change, an extreme change. A positive change.”

The Special Needs Parents’ Association of Kuwait introduced her to the Special Olympics. “In the Gulf, people don’t know how to react towards autism,” Ms Al Shubaiki says. “Parents suffer.”

Al Nasrallah gives a big smile when his mother asked about his bowling. He says he missed Kuwait and looks forward to returning home.

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He had not left Kuwait in 14 years.

“[Traveling] was very difficult,” his mother says. “Last time I travelled with him was to Dubai when he was 12. He was very annoyed when we were coming back from Dubai to Kuwait.

"At the airport he was screaming. One week in Dubai was extreme for him, because of the noise.”

After this trip, international travel could become a part of Al Nasrallah’s life again. The family are discussing a return to Abu Dhabi for the Special Olympics World Games in 2019.

“Next year they will be heroes,” Ms Al Shubaiki says. “Maybe. Inshallah.”