The Egyptian government and civil society organizations are holding several events and workshops on April 2, which is World Autism Awareness Day, and over the course of the month. In keeping with the United Nations’ theme for the ninth World Autism Day — “Toward autonomy and self-determination” — the Health and Social Solidarity Ministries, in cooperation with local NGOs, are reportedly holding events throughout April assisting the autistic community with educational autonomy and societal integration.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity’s program is dubbed “the month of accepting autism.”
However, some within the autism community believe that these actions are symbolic, rather than of practical significance.
Spanning a range of conditions, caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, autism may typically be characterized by non-standard forms of social interaction, repetitive behaviors, and challenges in speech and nonverbal communication.
Citing the latest figures issued by the Minister of Social Solidarity, Ghada Wali, the state-owned Middle East News Agency reported that there are some 800,000 autistic individuals in Egypt. At a conference held by the Ministry of Social Solidarity on Sunday, Wali claimed that one in every 160 Egyptian children is autistic to differing degrees, adding that males are five times more likely to be autistic than females.
Wali inaugurated a seminar entitled “Training and Employment for People with Autism: A spectrum of abilities and diversity in opportunities,” adding that there are some 90 NGOs who are involved or interested in being involved in the ministry’s events this month for autism acceptance.
As a symbolic show of solidarity, the color blue, associated with World Autism Awareness Day, is being used to illuminate several Egyptian landmarks including the Pyramids of Giza, the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-Aas, the Hanging Church, the buildings of the Suez Canal Authority, Qasr al-Aini Hospital, the American University in Cairo, along with a host of other educational facilities and schools. Last year, the Giza pyramids were illuminated blue on World Autism Awareness Day.
Ranwa Yehia, whose son has autism told Mada Masr said that she was following events for this year’s World Autism Awareness Day. Concrete measures, rather than symbolic actions, she said, are needed to assist children with autism, along with their families.
“Early diagnosis, from birth to five years of age, and early intervention is what is needed most in Egypt,” Yehia explained, adding that these measures are required “to address the special educational needs of children from the start. Early diagnosis and intervention helps provide children with opportunities to learn and to interact with their society.”
More important than “vague laws” for children with disabilities “are measures and policies which are realizable and do-able, including specific educational and health services for these children,” Yehia said.
Yehia explained that children with autism “generally require one-on-one attention, from specialized teachers, along with proper teachings and training suited to a child’s specific needs and skills.”
There is little in terms of public educational facilities for children with special needs in Egypt, she bemoaned, pointing out that these facilities are usually under-budgeted, while their personnel are usually under-qualified.
“Some private centers claim that they can provide quality services for children with autism, but these centers are not necessarily providing the level of education needed, and this makes it more difficult for a child to adapt to his or her society or peers,” Yehia explained.
That there is not enough information on issues of autism in Arabic is another challenge for carers of those with autism, she said.
The Ministry of Social Solidarity pointed to its efforts in drafting new legislation geared towards children with disabilities and special needs, while also working to provide further opportunities for vocational training programs, and more equal opportunities for employment in both the public and private sectors.
According to the MENA news agency, Wali admitted that “Egypt is faced with the difficulties of diagnosis and of integration. We are in a country with high rates of illiteracy and poverty, we suffer from problems in our educational system,” before going on to say that “we need time to deal with these issues, but each of us has to make an effort to become a better person by learning about the different disabilities.”