Autism Awareness Day lights up the UAE

Ataya is a three-day exhibition organised by the Red Crescent under an initiative rolled out by Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nayhan.

ABU DHABI // A charity initiative aims to raise more than Dh7 million to help autistic children.

Ataya is a three-day exhibition organised by the Red Crescent under an initiative rolled out by Sheikha Shamsa bint Hamdan Al Nahyan, wife of Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Ruler's Representative in the Western Region and president of the Red Crescent.

Held next month, the exhibition aims to attract a number of big retailers to sell items such as jewellery, clothing and household accessories, with the net proceeds and money raised from ticket sales to go towards helping those with autism. Donations are also being encouraged.

Although there are no statistics available for the UAE, autism - a development disorder usually found during the first three years of life and characterised by impaired social interaction and communication and by repetitive behaviour - is on the rise in the country, according to experts.

Yesterday's launch of Ataya, which means donation in Arabic, came as people across the globe marked World Autism Day.

Last night, landmarks around the world, including the Burj Al Arab, basked in a bright blue light to mark the sixth annual Light It Up Blue campaign, organised by the US-based non-profit Autism Speaks group.

Hotel group Jumeirah also illuminated the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Wild Wadi while, in Abu Dhabi, the company's Etihad Towers were also bathed in blue light.

Other buildings taking part in the initiative included the country's largest private hospital, Al Zahra, where staff also wore blue ribbons.

Famous structures around the world that took part in Light It Up Blue included New York's Empire State Building, the Pyramids of Giza and the Sydney Opera House.

In the UAE, the Ataya exhibition was first launched last year and it helps either a local or international charity each year.

Last year, it raised Dh7m for the Children's Cancer Centre in Lebanon and this year Sheikha Shamsa wanted to focus on something closer to home while aiming to top last year's amount raised, said Khawala Salem Al Saedi, the head of the Ataya executive committee.

Speaking yesterday at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, Ms Al Saedi said autism is of growing concern in the UAE and more needs to be done to "help the children of tomorrow".

"We selected autism this year because of the high rate of autistic kids in the country," she said. "The other thing is there is not much awareness in the country and there is a huge denial from parents who have autistic kids.

"In Ataya, the main focus is to shed the light on a cause and to create awareness around it."

Awareness of autism remains low despite it being one of the most common neural disorders in the world, with 35 cases officially diagnosed worldwide, according to the United States Centre for Disease Control.

Provisions for children with autism are woefully lacking in the UAE, especially for those aged between two and five, said Ms Al Saedi.

Money raised by Ataya will help fund technical equipment for centres in Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah, train more than 20 specialists in autism and help distribute iPads to autistic children across the UAE.

"Those iPads will have apps that will help these kids to communicate because the issue with autism is the ability to communicate," said Ms Al Saedi.

Funds will also help give financial support to cash-strapped parents of autistic children and go towards a vital campaign to educate the public about the condition.

The Ataya charity exhibition, of which Abu Dhabi Media, The National's parent company, is one of the sponsors, will be held from May 6 to 9 at Abu Dhabi Country Club between 3pm to 10pm.

An information booth will be in place to give attendees details on autism and to collect donations.

Encouraging businesses and people to attend the exhibition and give generously, Ms Al Saedi said: "It is part of people's social responsibility. The cause is for the country.

"The target of our leaders here is to build the people of UAE."