Dubai mum on a mission to bridge the special needs learning gap
When Rana Atassi’s middle son Jad was two, he was diagnosed with autism. "I did it all by the book to try to make him better – intensive therapy, alternative medicine, supplements, you name it, I did it," says Ms Atassi, a Syrian mum-of-three whose husband owns an IT company, adding that she then "became severely depressed".
That was in 2009. A year later she set up a blog, autismindubai.com, as a way to support families like hers coming to terms with the condition. However, it soon became a "Yellow Pages for autism in Dubai", she says.
"Unfortunately when it comes to autism, like with many industries, one or two centres market themselves tremendously – but that doesn’t mean they’re the best. And others cannot afford the marketing, but they’re doing an amazing job," she explains. "So I upgraded the website to include all the centres, activities, schools, anything related to autism in Dubai, all free of charge."
Seven years later, Ms Atassi has taken her mission even further – last October launching Modern Alternative Education (MAE), a school that claims to be the first and only learning centre in Dubai to fill the gap between mainstream and special needs learning.
It took four years of planning to open, a journey that started when she noticed how the cost of extra occupational and speech therapy (Dh400 for a 45-minute session) was financially crippling some families in her online network. "Even the cheapest unqualified therapist is Dh200 per hour, and these services aren’t generally covered under normal medical insurance," she explains.
So in 2012, under the umbrella of the Red Crescent, Ms Atassi reached out to corporates in Dubai to sponsor the treatment of those most in need. In all, 22 children have been helped through her fundraising. Although the recipients tended to come from lower-income families, Ms Atassi says that’s not always the case. "If you have a couple of kids and one of them is autistic and requires 20 to 40 hours a week of applied behaviour analysis, you don’t necessarily have to be on a low income for autism to bankrupt you."
With additional therapy, Ms Atassi’s own son has "improved tremendously"; his autism is now considered "mild to moderate". But nevertheless, he was still rejected by 22 mainstream schools. "I had a live-in therapist to go everywhere with him, but they still didn’t accept him," says Ms Atassi. "Their excuse was that he is non-verbal.
Ms Atassi discovered she was not alone. Despite the extra therapy, most of the children she fundraised for ended up at schools more suited to those with severe special needs. "This raised so many questions," says Ms Atassi.
While Jad was eventually accepted into a mainstream school, she found this did not suit his needs either. "He would sit there colouring while they were doing their times tables – this is not inclusion."
So the mum took drastic action, deciding to fill the gap between special needs and mainstream education in Dubai by setting up MAE.
Her first step was to learn more about special needs education via a training programme at Little Friends, a Chicago autism centre – a business model she later decided to replicate. "They have 22 small villas, and all their classes are small in size. I wanted MAE to feel like a family environment, where we know all the kids’ names."
Because Little Friends is an American governmental non-profit organisation, MAE couldn’t be its franchise. "But we are under their umbrella with our registration and application forms," Ms Atassi explains, adding that licensing, approvals and finding the right affiliates and staff were the biggest obstacles in her entrepreneurial venture.
The school is housed in a villa in Al Wasl on a large plot of land. Jad is one of 15 students now enrolled there, and it has capacity for 35 more. All are ages eight to 18, with mild to moderate learning difficulties. "It helps that they all have each other," says Ms Atassi, who has received placment requests from families in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
For 14-year-old Abhishek from India, MAE has provided the "middle way" between mainstream and special needs schools, according to his mum Anjana Nair. "The pressure on him was too much at a mainstream school, but at the special needs school he attended, they thought he was incapable of learning anything. At this school, they are trying to teach him things. They seem to be aware that he can learn, but they do it at his pace."
Ms Nair concedes that the fees (Dh79,000 to Dh98,000 a year depending on the required teacher-student ratio) are not the cheapest in Dubai, but says the school provides value for money. "They’re using the money to get good professionals in who are trained to know how to handle these children."
So far, Ms Atassi has hired 10 professionally trained special education staff.
She says if she decides to grow her non-profit school, she will duplicate the villa model, rather than expand the current facility. "I want the school to become solid first," she adds. "Then we’ll talk about future possibilities."