In February-May 2016 I volunteered at the Future Center for Special Needs in Abu Dhabi. The Community Outreach office at my university NYU Abu Dhabi promoted the opportunity and I felt a need to take it, to actively serve the society in which I had been studying for four years. The experience left me with many insights on child development and showed the concerted efforts of the UAE government to provide the most for its least protected citizens.
Ms. Kismette, or "Ms. K" how children would call her, explained to me that the group included children with various needs. I was suggested to work closely with one or two children at a time, which was a good way to learn about their personalities in greater depth, and for them to learn about me. There were a few important conclusions, some occurring momentarily and others coming in retrospect, which I would like to share.
Discipline Is Important
Special needs children are as inquisitive, playful, impatient, and lazy as other children, and equally need to learn discipline. Self-discipline is especially important with special needs, because the child needs to develop a positive mental self-organization to overcome the challenges of his or her circumstances. At the Future Center I saw how self-discipline is implemented from the very early age. My group included children of 5 to 9 years old. To prepare for lunch, they washed their hands, placed their food on individual trays and carried the trays to the desk. This provided a way to learn about various manufactured objects such as trays and foster the feeling of personal belonging, since every child had their own food container and place at the table. After lunch everyone wiped their table with wet cloth, a definitely commendable group activity to motivate cleanliness.
A difficulty to walk was not an excuse. Ms. K drove a five-year-old in a wheelchair to the niche with backpacks, where the little girl took her tray and food to the place at her desk. Afterwards she wiped the table with a wet napkin just like everyone else. The emphasis was thus on the fact that everyone was capable and had to persevere regardless of the condition.
Discipline exercises also encouraged connections with other life essentials, for instance, track of time. There were seven boxes with different toys reserved for every day of the week, and children knew exactly which day of the week it was to take the toys from the right container.
Individual Ways to Learn
Some children developed their own ways to learn more about the world. A journey to the kitchen was not part of the routine, but a five-year-old boy in the group really enjoyed to warm up his croissant every time before lunch. It was an opportunity for self-expression and independence, which Ms. K encouraged very much. Instead of heating the croissant for him, she let the boy bring it on the plate to the microwave in the kitchen and press himself the button to warm it up.
Jump Further Than Anyone Else
Special needs children are endowed with the biggest developmental potential, because they start at a disadvantage but, given the conducive environment, have plenty of opportunities to catch up. In my first days I worked with a little boy who was very smart but had slow muscle development. We played a game to develop his arm muscles and voice chords, whereby he would circle small triangles and squares with his finger one by one and count them aloud from one to ten. At first, I had to lean closely to hear his "one, two, three..." There was not much progress right away, but repetition and perseverance are sure ways to reach miracles. After two and a half months, I was amazed to meet him in the hallway and hear him talking-singing loudly to the nurse. He no longer had to whisper!
Take Questions Seriously
When a child asks a "Why..?" question and parents respond impatiently with "because!" or simply don't answer, I personally consider it a moral crime. Children are all equally curious regardless of abilities and only learn if their curiosity is answered. At the Future Center I was once massaging the legs of a little girl that had difficulty walking. I checked her face to see if she was enjoying it, but did not expect what was coming. She looked at me with all the seriousness of an adult and asked: "Why are you touching my legs?!" I was overjoyed because of how critically she evaluated her environment, but felt also guilty for intruding in her space without properly explaining my actions. To justify myself, I described what blood circulation was and that it was important for her to walk. Later that day, she invented a game that totally struck me. In a sensory room, where children developed perceptions by interacting with light and game-friendly objects, she asked me to close my eyes and to look at her after she was standing up with a supervisor's assistance. Then she went on to do a few steps. She wanted to show off her walking abilities!
The first piece of advice given to me when I started volunteering was to expect more from the children. Patience and repetition, I learnt, are essential for success. You could put a straw in a juice box for a child with cerebral palsy syndrome, and they would not learn it themselves, always expecting you to do it. Alternatively, you could stand by and encourage them to try, and in most cases they will eventually do it themselves. A balance between independence and assistance may be difficult to find, but ultimately it depends on patience: how much am I willing to wait and direct them until they learn? Just like other children, special needs kids progress faster if encouraged to try by their parents and supervisors.
In this regard, I found a significant amount of support to individuals with special needs from the government of the United Arab Emirates. A center like the one in Abu Dhabi which has facilities for academic study, massage rooms, dance and music studios, safe playground with soft grass, and experienced and approachable staff optimizes the development potential of a child. The topic is brought to the larger society as well. At the Walk for a Cause event in support of the Emirates Autism Society held last March in Al Mushrif park, I witnessed how full the venue was with visitors, how children regardless of their conditions played together on a large trampoline, and how students from schools like Future Center were among the winners at the quiz show and invited on stage to collect their prizes. Ultimately, the biggest prize to the society is a shared understanding that everyone starts off at a different level, but is capable of achieving much given the right support.