Inside the Dubai 'village' preparing autistic children for the working world

The remarkable 30,000 square-metre community has a mall, health clinic and mock airport

Omar Al Suwaidan, 17, dreams of one day getting a job so he can help support his family.

Diagnosed with autism at a young age, he is one of 90 pupils and students enrolled at Sanad Village in Dubailand.

The residential complex, which opened a year ago, is helping equip young people with conditions such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy with the skills they need to transition into the world of work.

The 30,000 square-metre village, located in Dubai Sustainable City, has mock simulation areas, such as a mall, health clinic, police station and airport, so children and young adults can experience everyday situations and build their confidence and independence.

One of the major problems parents of children with autism face is travel, which is why we set up the mock airport

Jade Butler-Rees, Sanad Village

Older pupils who attend the centre have voluntary work placements at local businesses, including supermarkets and farms.

“We are trying to create a simulated environment that the pupils will come across when out in the community,” said Jade Butler-Rees, vocational programme director at Sanad Village.

“One of the major problems parents of children with autism face is travel, which is why we set up the mock airport.

“Loud noises and crowds can trigger autistic children, so we want to help ease them into the real world as much as we can.

“Work opportunities is another huge focus. We have one student working in the Zoom supermarket located within Dubai Sustainable City," Ms Butler-Rees said.

“He can practise stacking shelves, talking to customers and ringing items through the till.”

The main goal at Sanad is to help prepare pupils for mainstream schools and introduce older students to the working world. Work placements are open to pupils aged 13 and above.

With capacity for 600 pupils, the village has more than 100 residential units for children and young adults to board long-term.

Families from the region, including Saudi Arabia, often opt for the boarding option, where each resident has three dedicated support staff.

The centre also hosts an outreach programme for pupils and students who do not board.

Full-day programmes run from 8am until 4pm and half-day programmes from 8am to noon. Parents can also opt for catered hourly programmes for children who need specialist therapy.

Prices and packages are based on the type of intervention needed.

“Most of the children enrolled at Sanad are between the ages of 6 to 13,” Ms Butler-Rees said.

“We don’t have a set age criteria. The youngest we have had was 6 months old and the oldest, 26.

Omar Al Suwaidan, right, practices work as a cashier at the mock Zoom supermarket located in Sanad Village mall in Dubai Sustainable City. Pawan Singh / The National
Omar Al Suwaidan practises working as a cashier at the mock Zoom supermarket located in Sanad Village mall. Pawan Singh / The National

“In terms of demographics, we tend to see more boys than girls. This is predominantly the case with children with autism, where the ratio of boys to girls is usually three to one.”

Autism is a complex spectrum of disorders that affects an increasing number of children around the world.

Currently, one in 54 children are documented as being on the spectrum and Ms Butler-Rees said Sanad Village was opened as a “safe space designed with the specific needs of children and families in mind”.

More than 150 staff are currently based at the centre, with roles for up to 320 when at full capacity.

Therapists and specialists, including occupational therapists, speech and language therapists and behavioural analysts, monitor and optimise the progression of each child.

Teachers and teaching assistants also work on a one-to-one basis in the classroom for lessons such as Arabic, English, art and science.

Programmes are split into five sections: early intervention – which is important to help young children to access mainstream school; therapy; vocational – which caters for pupils aged 16 and over; training for staff; and research and development – where staff collect data and observe classes to improve and adapt their programmes.

Karim El Jisr, chief social sustainability officer at Dubai Sustainable City, said the neighbourhood was designed with integration and inclusion in mind.

“Our strategy is to give the children at Sanad Village access to many facilities in the community that will help them transition into independence as they navigate through real-life experiences,” he said.

“Within walking distance of the centre, the kids can explore the urban farm and gardens, the animal sanctuary, the equestrian club, the plaza and its multiple outlets.

“This integration not only helps the students in Sanad interact with residents and visitors, but also raises awareness and builds acceptance within the wider community and beyond."

Updated: May 4, 2021 07:59 AM

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