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Joined: 25 Aug 2013
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12 May 2021, 5:40 am

’With Awareness Comes Acceptance’: Shifting Perceptions of Autism in Egypt

‘Illness, disease, epidemic.’ These are the terms that are commonly, and incorrectly, associated with autism. To say that this neurodivergence is misunderstood in Egyptian society and beyond is an understatement, yet in recent years, many individuals have worked tirelessly to alter perceptions of it – and continue to make exceptional progress.

Attitudes towards autism in Egypt have changed majorly over the past couple of decades, and no one has witnessed this shift quite like Dahlia Soliman, founder of the Egyptian Autistic Society, a non-profit organisation which supports people with autism, particularly children, and their families.

Following her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of New South Wales in Australia, and subsequent Master’s from the UK’s University of Birmingham which specialised in autism, she returned to Cairo to establish the society.

Incorrect assumptions about autism existed more when we first started, in 1999. In the beginning, you would still see people who viewed [autistic people] as touched by spirits, but I think this has really gone down a lot,” Dahlia says.

“Compared to before, it’s much more acceptable – it’s no longer taboo to have a child with special needs.” she explains.

Much of this previous misunderstanding of what autism is in Egyptian society can be put down to a lack of awareness amongst the scientific community. In the Middle East and North Africa region, autism only became a field of interest in the late 1990s, and there is a notable lack of scientific publications on the subject from this region. The centre of much of the research dedicated to autism has taken place in affluent English-speaking nations, leading to the concerning belief that autism is less prevalent in ‘non-western’ cultures. This is something that Dahlia has witnessed first hand when the Egyptian Autistic Society was first established.

“70 to 80 percent of the cases that used to come to me were misdiagnosed, even by the biggest paediatricians, neurologists and psychiatrists. That was terrible, as they were being treated for different things, and receiving the wrong therapy,” Dahlia describes. According to her experience, these misdiagnoses included cerebral palsy and so-called ‘mental retardation’ – “things that just aren’t related to autism,” she explains.

Over the past twenty years, the gaps in scientific studies relating to the prevalence of autism in the Middle East and North Africa are slowly being filled. Interest in the field has grown particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have produced the most research in recent years.

As children grow beyond the early developmental stages, the time comes for them to enrol in the education system, which brings numerous hurdles for autistic children. Dahlia explains that one of the Egyptian Autistic Society’s (EAS) key aims is to facilitate ‘mainstreaming’, the integration of autistic children into mainstream schooling.

“I’ve always been pro-mainstreaming,” she says. “I’ve had a mainstreaming programme running now for over 15 years with EAS. We teach children things like raising their hand to ask to go to the bathroom, standing in line, writing on the blackboard or copying from a whiteboard. So all the skills that they would need, even how to play and how to request things, and if they’re non verbal we teach them through using pictures. We don’t only help with the transition, we enforce our system in mainstream schools.”

The system is efficient – but integrating it throughout all levels of society proves challenging.

So far we’ve only been able to do it in private schools. The problem is in the public schools that you already have around 60 students in one classroom, and one teacher, so adding an autistic child into this environment will not benefit them.”
According to her, more funding must be allocated towards the public education system to create a more inclusive environment for these pupils. Thanks to EAS’ collaboration with the Ministry of Education, a law exists requiring every school in Egypt to be ‘inclusive’.

As well as focusing efforts on mainstreaming pupils, Dahlia and the EAS have also launched a range of campaigns, and worked with the Ministry of Education, to bring positive change for autistic Egyptians. In 2019, the ‘Pass on the Light’ campaign took place, which brought special training on how to support autistic individuals to every governorate in Egypt. The EAS also recently partnered with McDonalds.

“They supported our students with vocational training and helped us spread awareness”

Despite progress being made in leaps and bounds recently, there is still much progress to be made in making Egyptian society more inclusive to those with autism.

Dahlia claims that awareness must also be increased amongst the medical community.
“Until this day, Egyptian medical schools still don’t teach about autism, they only have one paragraph about it in textbooks. There is no degree programme that prepares you to be a therapist for those with autism in Egypt. This has led us to develop a partnership with Helwan University, where we welcome their fourth year medical students into the EAS centre to undergo practical training.”

Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity.

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman


Joined: 21 Jul 2020
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12 May 2021, 7:28 pm

Are they in da Nile?


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Joined: 6 Feb 2005
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12 May 2021, 7:38 pm

This is that kind of good news that doesn't get stated often enough. TY for sharing!

"The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. To be your own man is a hard business. If you try it, you'll be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privelege of owning yourself" - Rudyard Kipling