Saudi Gazette report
JEDDAH — The absence of specialized treatment centers for autistic children in the Kingdom is still a problem for many families, especially in cities, towns and villages far away from major urban centers where some private facilities offer the services.
The lack of adequate support has pushed many families to seek realistic alternatives to end their struggle. Some have chosen to travel to Arab or European countries, exposing themselves and their children to various dangers during the desperate search for help.
The ministries of health and social affairs have apologized for being unable to treat autistic children at the expense of the government. Their excuse to one citizen was that there is no treatment for the condition even outside the country and that they should visit local centers and benefit from their services.
In reality, the situation is totally unlike what these two ministries have claimed.
Okaz/Saudi Gazette visited several autistic centers in Cairo, Egypt, where many Saudi families have traveled in the hope of finding treatment for their children.
Some asked that even if their child’s situation improved as a result of such trips, what alternative would they have in the Kingdom once they returned.
Among the Saudis searching for treatment in the Egyptian capital is Yahya Ali, from Jazan, who wanted to treat his six-year-old autistic daughter. He was looking for oxygen treatment and hearing aid sessions.
“Jazan suffers from a lack of specialized treatment centers,” Ali said.
“There might be a department in one of the public hospitals, but it doesn’t serve the large numbers of people who struggle with this illness. That’s why I traveled to Cairo to visit one of the centers that offer services for autistic children,” he said.
“I moved from Jazan to Cairo paying out of my own pocket and found a residence for my family near the center to access it easily. It is a costly process and might also endanger my family.”
Ali was surprised at the lack of care and attention toward autistic children in Saudi Arabian cities.
Khalid Hussein, a resident of Qunfudah, said he used to travel to Jeddah by car, a trip of over 600 kilometers, in search of treatment for his son.
“It was pointless,” he said. “Many doctors didn’t even know how to treat my son.”
He explained that his son’s illness forced him to travel to Cairo and seek specialized treatment via hearing aid, pressurized oxygen and other treatments that helped improve the condition of many children.
He said the struggle faced by families with autistic children still fall on deaf ears at both the ministries of health and social affairs.
Hussein added that many parents had no choice but to borrow money from banks, companies or car dealers to pay the costs of traveling and treating their children.
Umm Amal, a mother with an autistic daughter, confirmed that her experience with autism was similar to other families struggling with public hospitals.
In order to treat her daughter, she had to change her lifestyle and was forced to find a job.
“That didn’t help end my suffering,” Amal said. “I struggled searching for services in local hospitals. I then took the decision to travel abroad, but was faced with a lot of fraud due to my insufficient knowledge about autism, which has become common lately.”
She explained that the lack of awareness is a hurdle in the Kingdom, in addition to a lack of specialized medical care.
“I paid more than SR70,000 in the past three years covering the expenses of visitations, examinations and medications,” she said. “We visited many centers in Jeddah and Riyadh with no evident results. Our country is in need of trained specialists who are fully aware of how to handle autistic children and are also not so greedy.”
Abu Migrin, the father of an autistic child from Taif, said that he has been struggling for over five years to treat his son, without a solution.
“The situation is getting worse everyday with my son growing older,” Migrin said. “I paid a lot of money to travel and seek medical help outside the country.”
He said he was disappointed with the lack of response from the ministries of health and social affairs, and that they had turned a blind eye to the way autistic children are neglected in the country.
“I remember filing a complaint to the Health Ministry and meeting with the medical committee for outside treatment,” he said. “They promised me after reviewing my son’s case to secure treatment for him abroad. Yet after one year, I received an apology for not being able to provide any support and their reason was that services are available locally.
“I wonder which centers or services were they referring to? Are they available in each and every city, or does the ministry want citizens to leave their homes and move to major cities where help is available as the ministry claims?”