Although students at Abu Dhabi’s Future Rehabilitation Centre achieve varying degrees of independence after they graduate, the ideal is to land a job.
One such graduate to have achieved this is Eid Al Shamsi, a 21-year-old Emirati who is now working at the Ministry of Interior’s human rights department.
When he was a boy, Mr Al Shamsi had initially been enrolled in a private school, where he struggled to keep up with his peers because of autism and learning difficulties.
“I was uncomfortable with the other students in that school,” he says.
His parents soon realised that their initial plan wasn’t working and pursued other options, which eventually led them to the Future Rehabilitation Centre, formerly called the Future Centre for Special Needs.
It was not long after starting his new school, at the age of 6, that he began to thrive. Mr Al Shamsi explains that it was the teachers who made all the difference.
“If I want to remember something, I have to remember the teacher who taught it to me first,” he says.
Soon, he was learning proverbs, reading, writing, mathematics and art. His skills expanded as he grew older, and his areas of study became more complex: using the computer programme Photoshop and speaking in public.
The Future Centre was a safe environment for him to “release” his struggles and problems because he knew he could always count on his teachers.
“Nothing bad ever happened here – only good things. Sometimes you have a bad feeling, or struggle with something. But, if you have problems, you just talk to the teacher and they will fix it.”
The 200 children at the centre all have varying degrees of potential. Staff develop and deliver individualised education and therapy plans based on the children’s abilities and needs. In Mr Al Shamsi’s case, staff realised early on he had great academic potential.
“He was very different when he first came here,” says Anjum Jaffer, the centre’s head of education.
“He came to us when he was 6 years old and could not speak. It took him a while, but the good thing about Eid is that he wants to learn. He would never say, ‘Oh, I can’t do it, I’m giving up’. He would not give up.
“He loved playing by himself, and we could have just left him or done one-on-one with him, but we had to include him in the class.”
The group Mr Al Shamsi moved into was very academic, and he was the youngest. The centre knew he needed a balance between being pushed and given space. With consistency, repetition and hard work, he soon overcame his difficulties with processing information.
“We have lots of kids who are successful and who are employed and things, but each one has their own strengths. Eid’s was his sincerity, and sincerely wanting to be better, and I give credit to his family as well, because they allowed him to grow,” said Ms Jaffer.
However, she also sees many families where the parents reject the notion that their special needs child could be best served by studying at a facility devoted especially to them.
“They’re happy to have them in a mainstream school, where they’re not actually getting what they need.”
Mowfaq Mustafa, the director of the Future Rehabilitation Centre, says that the younger that students are enrolled at the centre, the better.
“The most important thing for us, of course, is safety, (then) independence, and to improve their skills as much as we can. There are some students, where if they come to us young, around three or four years old, they will have a chance to go to mainstream school, and they will not need to come back.
“But, if they come to us at 14 or 15 years old, what will they do? Scientifically, the brain after six years does not function as during the first five years.”
Some students are partially integrated into mainstream schools, where they can learn socialisation and academic skills while still receiving the care they need at the centre.
Even highly capable students often need access to the centre’s 100-strong team of teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists, speech therapists and other specialised help – rather than just subject teachers.
“We know them and they know us,” he says. “They trust us.”
So far, almost 100 Future Rehabilitation Centre students have been integrated into mainstream schools. These days, however, there are many other many options available to parents, including open schooling, online learning or private study, says Ms Jaffer.
One student at the centre, for example, is privately studying for their GCSEs while training to become a scuba diving instructor.
“I think parents should keep their eyes open and look for what suits their child the best,” she says.
Speaking at this year’s annual gala dinner, in February, Mr Al Shamsi asked parents to think of their children. He attributes much of his success to his caring and supportive parents, and believes their decision to enrol him in a special needs school was crucial.
“I could do anything in that school – I could play and have fun. This was the only school where I was able to do something. Some things, I couldn’t do, but they wanted me to learn.
“My parents wanted me to behave well – like a gentleman. My teachers taught me how to behave and, within one year, [I] improved 100 per cent.”
Ms Jaffer says improving behaviour is an early priority. “We know that when a child is young, people can tolerate all kinds of behaviours, but when they grow up with the same behaviours, people will not tolerate them.”
One of the ways the centre prepares students for the workforce is through teaching “pre-vocation” skills such as photocopying, ring-binding, organising shelves and filing things away.
Those who are comfortable with computers can also learn to use software like Microsoft Office.
“As of now, the students who’ve gotten jobs, like Eid, have got jobs on the basis of the skills that they’ve learned,” says Ms Jaffer.
However, it is not just about work, or making students employable. “The skills that our students learn here can be used productively in the community. We really want people to be aware of what these children can do, rather than focus on what they cannot.
“I can tell you that not all of our kids would be able to handle jobs, but those who can, our wish for them is to really go out and work and have a productive life – be part of society.”
The centre knew from the time he was 16 that Mr Al Shamsi was capable of working and supported him by finding work placements and internships.
When he was 17, Mr Al Shamsi went on a month-long internship at Mubadala GE Capital. He says: “It was great to meet the other employees, and they invited me to a party. It was really great. I passed the work experience and got a certificate.”
It was also around this time that he lost 25 kilogrammes, and learned the value of a balanced diet.
Following this, he studied a six-month Photoshop course, which led to him winning a prize in a skills competition. “I still do Photoshop and work on websites – just doing creative things. It’s my hobby. I love being creative,” he says with enthusiasm.
Eventually, it came time for Mr Al Shamsi to move on and leave the centre. When his father broke the news, he said he was sad. “Then he told me that I was going to be working at the Ministry of Interior, and I got so excited.”
After passing the necessary health checks, he began working in a secretarial role in February 2015.
“I was so happy to finally start working in the human rights department,” he says. “I had to learn from my manager – he would be my mentor and teach me what, exactly, I needed to do.”
As part of his responsibilities, he sets up conference rooms, takes photos and notes during meetings, writes and delivers documents and reports and prepares PowerPoint presentations. Although he has always learned in English, he can understand Arabic quite well.
“We talk about so many topics during the meetings, and we have to review them for the boss – tell them why we’re doing things and what we have said about them, or discussing improvements for the future.”
Mr Al Shamsi knows he has come a long way. “When I was little, I was afraid to talk to even six people, but then I learned to give speeches. I had to do an interview with six bosses, who approved my job.
“I’m not afraid of talking to other people anymore – I’ve gotten used to it.”
Leaving the centre was a huge transition, but Mr Al Shamsi has learned to persevere and draw upon his inner strength to overcome whatever challenges lie ahead.
“Life is a challenge, and you have to face that challenge. If you struggle with your words, or have problems – that’s called life. When you don’t have any teachers around, or friends, you still have yourself.
“You just have to face forward instead of looking at the struggle behind.”