New centre for the developing child in Dubai

Facility in Umm Suqeim provides for those with learning problems and special needs, because, founders say, 'everyone needs help'.

DUBAI// More than 400 families have registered with a new centre for children with learning disabilities and special needs since it opened in April.

The Developing Child Centre, in Umm Suqeim, has also started offering scholarships to children whose families cannot afford their services. So far three children have received financial aid.

"Every child deserves to have all the therapy they need regardless of their social status or financial abilities," said Nof Al Mazrui, one of the centre's co-founders.

The centre aims to reach children with a wide range of learning disabilities, behavioural problems or developmental delays. It provides evaluations, therapy, tutoring, group classes and family support.

The programme is unique in the UAE because of its broad focus, said co-founder Dalya Tabari.

"We do not see the facility as special needs, it's a support centre," she said. "We do have kids who are special needs, but we also have kids who are not."

The centre's clients fall in the "grey zone" of differences that are not always served by mainstream schools, Ms Tabari said. That includes children with conditions such as autism, dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder as well as children with no diagnosed condition but who need extra help.

"What we're trying to do is blur the lines a little bit," Ms Tabari said. "All it is about is the level of support you need. The reality is, everybody needs help."

Kamal Jamjoom relocated his family to Dubai specifically for the centre, he said.

"We toured three or four different centres and this is really one of the best," said Mr Jamjoom, who is from Saudi Arabia.

His seven-year-old daughter, Hikmat, has a hearing impairment that was diagnosed two years ago. The vivacious little girl has hearing aids and is progressing quickly, but needs support to catch up on lost time, Ms Tabari said.

"They have everything here," Mr Jamjoom said.

For children aged one to six, the centre provides an "early intervention" education programme, replacing nursery and kindergarten. Older children receive occupational, behavioural and speech therapy plus tutoring to help them succeed in a mainstream school.

"Our mission is actually to reintegrate back into mainstream, it's not to isolate," Ms Tabari said.

Tracey Warren, director of education, said the centre will work with eight local schools in September to provide training and professional development to teachers.

The biggest challenge the centre has faced is combatting the stigma that many parents associate with seeking help, Ms Tabari said.

"That's why we stopped talking about therapy and started talking about the benefits," she said. For example, instead of advertising time with an occupational therapist, the centre advertises group classes in handwriting skills.

Starting next week, the centre is offering a summer camp for children between three and eight that aims to teach confidence, communication and listening skills.

The centre has also started offering a course for nannies, addressing the fact that many children go home to spend time with caregivers rather than their parents. Two groups of nannies have completed the course so far, learning about educational play, nurturing independence and managing challenging behaviour.

"They were so keen on learning, it was giving them an opportunity to show their skills," Ms Tabari said.

A new course under development will be designed for nannies who work with children on the autism spectrum, Ms Al Mazrui said.

Eventually, the centre hopes to offer more scholarships through an effort called the Hibah Fund - which will direct profits towards financial aid.