Awareness and Acceptance in Accommodating Autism
by Amrita Anand
The UAE has a strong background in providing mental health services and actively participating in making accessible spaces for people of determination. While the acceptance of neurodiverse individuals has been in the works across various nations, accommodations for them in the public have been difficult, although the UAE has taken on this goal by establishing various schools and centers for children with special needs to great success. However, accommodations in public spaces have been a much newer undertaking.
Recently, Abu Dhabi rolled out a “quiet hour” plan in Yas Mall by implementing “sensory control measures” during certain periods for easy access by autistic people, or those with similar sensory issues and disorders. The absence of strong scents, bright lights, and the general bustle of activity or music in individual stores serves to create a friendlier environment for autistic people, along with the “quiet room” where one can recharge, so to speak, lest they get overwhelmed by the onslaught of stimuli around them.
While it is difficult to account for every opportunity for accommodation while constructing or modifying public spaces, it is helpful to think of smaller-scale ways of making them accessible and implementing those strategies on a larger scale. The reduction of sensory stimuli, for example, is already somewhat in effect in the NYU Abu Dhabi campus — adjustable lights in classrooms, the ability to draw screens down all windows, the physical location of the campus in a quieter “bubble” than the main city (which therefore reduces the amount of noise in the area), etc. — all help in their own small ways.
Of course, there are other measures that are easier to obtain and use, like noise-cancellation headphones, visual tools, providing stable routines, etc.. Generally, it is good practice to ask and listen to autistic people about what accommodations they would appreciate, rather than presume and make decisions for them. Additional provisions of assistive technology would generate widespread access of essentially customizable accommodations at much lower costs than large-scale methods.
Considering the subjectivity of experiences among autistic people, it is important to be aware of the variety of accommodations that are genuinely useful to them, as well as avoiding misinformation on the subject. Given that autism has an unpleasant history with eugenics, as well as — in the present day — stereotypical representations in most cultures, knowing who to consult for reliable information is vital. As a rule of thumb, asking people who identify with a particular group is better than collecting secondhand information, so talking to autistic people would be the best way to do so if that is an option. Local groups and institutions are the next best bet; the UAE runs several awareness campaigns across the emirates, such as through the Emirates Autism Center.
Online spaces are more difficult to screen for reliability, especially venturing into social media, but a common indicator of autistic people speaking about their experiences is the “#ActuallyAutistic” tag. Additionally, other organizations like the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) and Autism Women and Nonbinary Network (AWN), offer several resources and opportunities to learn more about autism in diverse environments.
Lastly, as April wraps up its theme of Autism Awareness and Acceptance, it is crucial to pay attention to the limitations of research on autism, which can be subjective in scope and motive. There is far less research conducted about autism and neurodiversity as a whole in non-western regions, and therefore it is important to screen one’s resources while learning as well as refer to current developments and personal accounts within the region.
Note: The prominent organization Autism Speaks is deliberately excluded from this list due to its lack of autistic leadership, its angles to “cure” autism upon finding a singular cause, and more reasons discussed in these articles.