Chet Cooper traveled to New York City and met up with Saudi Arabian
Princess Sameera Bint Abdullah Al Faisel Al Farhan AlSaoud. She is the
chairperson for both the Saudi Schizophrenia Charity Association and
the Charitable Society of Autism Families. On the homefront, shes
the mother of four, including one child with schizophrenia and another
with autism. Cooper and the princess were joined by her interpreter,
Abdulmohsen Al-Otaibi, PhD, who served as the director of her autism
organization for three years, and is a social philosophy professor of
education at King Saud University. He completed his PhD at Michigan
Cooper: What is Saudi Arabia doing to address autism?
Princess Sameera Bint Abdullah Al Faisel Al Farhan AlSaoud: There is
now a law and a system to govern the care of those with autism in Saudi
Arabia. Weve established a center for autism in Riyadh, and Im
a member of the Saudi Autistic Society. I invite families every month
to my house to talk, and weve also established the Charitable
Society of Autism Families. I want to distribute information to all
the universities and hospitals to increase awareness. I also have a
child with autism, and I show people his picture so they understand
my situation and dont feel a need to hide if they have a child
with a disability.
Cooper: How old is your son?
Princess Sameera: Hes 21.
Cooper: How old was he in the picture?
Princess Sameera: Which one? We have a lot of pictures, some before
the diagnosis and some after.
Cooper: Is there a difference between the two sets of pictures?
Princess Sameera: Yes, there is a big difference. Earlier on, he could
concentrate, and then later he began to turn his face and not make eye
contact and he was not as social.
Cooper: After he was diagnosed, did you seek treatment for him?
Princess Sameera: Yes. I checked out many places, five states in the
US and other facilities in Germany, Morocco and Britain among them.
Finally, I brought him to Los Angeles.
Cooper: Wait, you didnt call me when you were in LA?
Princess Sameera: This was a long time ago, maybe before you were born.
(laughs) So anyway, he stayed in LA about six months and was admitted
to a program for autistic individuals. When I brought him back to Saudi
Arabia, I got him enrolled in another program with four other typically
able kids, and after a year of this mainstreaming experiment, I placed
him with kids in a regular school and it was successful.
Cooper: With visiting different facilities around the world, did
you see what seemed to be working and what didnt?
Princess Sameera: I think there are three very important points to consider.
Cooper: We only want two.
Princess Sameera: (laughs) One is family. Any center that works
with autistic children should consider their family first. The second
point has to do with training the autistic child to communicate with
others. The third point is to get students to learn academically, socially
and psychologically. The best program I saw was at UCLA, where they
set the standard for research and treatment models for autism, while
optimizing treatment for individuals with autism.
Cooper: When your son was in the LA program, did you notice a significant
change in him after six months?
Princess Sameera: Yes. He had acquired different skills. They complemented
training he had received with other kids in a Saudi Arabian program,
which was successful, as well. The Charitable Society for Autism Families
in Saudi Arabia is another resource; each month there are two meetings
Cooper: That organization started out with meetings in your home;
do you still host those?
Princess Sameera: Just for the volunteers and people who work with me
in the evenings. After sunset, we write letters to government officials
and review newspaper articles written about autism in the mass media.
Some people come around 7 and stay past midnight, and I have to tell
them to go home.
Cooper: How long did families meet at your house?
Princess Sameera: Twelve years. Recently the United Arab Emirates recognized
my service by giving me an award: the Best Woman Volunteer in the Arab
Cooper: Congratulations. (Turning to Dr. Al-Otaibi) How did
you and Her Highness meet?
Dr. Abdulmohsen Al-Otaibi: Princess Sameera met my wife when my wife
was studying at the university about 15 years ago.
Cooper: What was her area of concentration?
Dr. Al-Otaibi: Her focus was special education, and the princess noticed
that my wife was interested in autism issues and invited her to create
a class around autism. My wife got her graduate certificate in autism
spectrum studies from the University of Arkansas. She now works with
the Saudi Arabian cultural mission in Washington, DC.
Cooper: You work there together?
Dr. Al-Otaibi: Yes.
Cooper: After your wife met the princess, how did you become involved
with the princess projects?
Dr. Al-Otaibi: When I returned home to Saudi Arabia from DC one time,
my wife asked if there was any way that I could work with her. I had
already been writing articles about autism in Saudi Arabian newspapers,
and so I asked the princess how I could help, especially as an interpreter
in the US or Great Britain or other non-Arabic-speaking countries.
She also nominated me to be the director of the Autism Society, which
I was for two years. During my tenure, I donated my full salary to the
society. I am very honored and proud to work with the princess. Shes
an amazing woman who is making history as an advocate for people with
schizophrenia and autism in the larger Arabian Gulf region and beyond
that within the world. Shes now working with Autism Speaks in
Cooper: In all of the work that you do around the world, have you
been able to pool what youve learned and bring it home to Saudi
Princess Sameera: It is my hope to duplicate some of the programs Ive
observed in my travels and to create a similar system in my country.
There is one simple thing that people dont think of that is very
important for autistic children: a relaxation room. If there are just
four or five students in the same class, and one student gets anxious
or tired, the relaxation room is very important in the center, as upwards
of 80 percent of autistic children have seizures.
Cooper: What challenges do you face in making your center a reality?
Princess Sameera: Finances.
Cooper: The Shafallah Center is funded through the Qatar Foundation.
Do you have a similar foundation that you can tap?
Princess Sameera: The Ministry of Social Affairs provides services for
autistic children, but in many ways its not as far along as the
Cooper: I thought Saudi Arabia had deep pockets.
Princess Sameera: (laughs) The country has, but we need to make
our voices heard within the government.
Cooper: Do you want me to call someone for you?
Princess Sameera: Yes, the king.
Cooper: I dont know if hell take my call! (laughter)
Princess Sameera: He will welcome you.
Cooper: Lets go together and interview him for ABILITY
Princess Sameera: Yes, that should be no problem, and we could talk
with him about autism.
Cooper: And maybe that would be a part of our first issue published
for the Arabic world.
Princess Sameera: That would be nice.
After the interview, Princess Sameera, Dr. Al-Otaibi and Cooper visit
the YAI Network, which helps more than 20,000 people with developmental
disabilities and their families daily through its more than 450 programs.
YAI is headquartered in New York but is international in scope. Perry
Samowitz, the organizations director of education and training,
greets them. A woman, who walked into the building at the same time
as the Princess, Cooper and Al-Otaiba, was curious, and participated
in the conversation.
Perry Samowitz: YAI
was established in 1957.
Cooper: So you started it?
Perry Samowitz: (laughs) I wasnt here in 1957, but I am
the longest-serving employee in the agency. Ive been here 35 years.
Princess Sameera: What kinds of services does YAI provide?
Samowitz: We provide community-based services. As you probably know,
years ago people in the US with intellectual and developmental disabilities
were put into institutions. But in the 1970s, there was a lawsuit against
the state of New York, and the judge ruled that those institutions had
to close, and tens of thousands of people had to be resettled within
the community. That was no easy feat.
When I started, we ran group homes of up to 10 or 15 people living together.
The judge also said that they couldnt just sit around; they had
to be given something useful to do. (To the woman) Were you one of the
first moms whose child was involved in that transition?
Woman: No, weve only been involved with YAI for 25 years.
Samowitz: Welcome! (laughter) So as I was saying, we had people
living in group homes, and we had to look for work opportunities for
them if they were higher-functioning. If they werent as high-functioning,
they would go into what we called day programs, which has evolved into
volunteer work in the community. They may not be high-functioning enough
to secure a paid job, but they can still be productive. We believe everyone
can be productive.
When we went to Jordan, we met Prince Raad, whos a wonderful man.
Weve all gotten very close. At that point in Jordan, they only
had institutions. And Prince Raad said to us, Can you help us?
We would like to do in Jordan what YAI did in New York. He also
visited our clinics. We have special health clinics that serve people
with developmental disabilities. The prince saw that and wanted to establish
similar facilities in Jordan, also. If someone has to go to a dentist
and they have autism, whats it like for them to be in a dentist
Princess Sameera: And whats it like for the dentist?
Samowitz: Right. So we had to specially train the dentists, doctors
Princess Sameera: Do you charge fees for your services?
Samowitz: No, the government pays. We also started preschools, because
you cant wait until someones an adult to help them when
they have a developmental disability. Early support makes a big difference.
So if theyre able to diagnose a child when it is born, they often
will call us and we will begin to work. Well do assessments, offer
in-home support for the families and early intervention. We have preschools
to help children get a head start, and many of them wind up going to
Woman: I just want to talk about the support that YAI gives to the parents
and the families. Very often, parents who have a child with difficulties
dont know what to do. One of the great benefits of YAI is their
outreach to parents and the informal network of parents which has grown
up around it and who are able to partake of YAI services. This includes
support groups in which parents get together and speak freely. One thing
that was valuable to me was a free course on applied behavior analysis.
Samowitz: We try to support a range of needs. We look at the big picture,
from when a person is born until the day they die. One of the people
I first worked with, who was 60 years old when I first met her and was
in an institution, ultimately got married and lived to be 92. She passed
away just recently. We supported her over the years.
Princess Sameera: How many people do you serve?
Samowitz: We serve about 20,000 people a day, but that could mean something
as simple as someone going to the dentist. Or it could mean a person
who lives in one of our group homeswe have 5,000 of themwho
goes to a day program, uses the clinic and gets a ton of services.
Princess Sameera: Are you just in New York?
Samowitz: YAI is funded mostly through New York State. We have programs
in New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. But most of our work
is in New York. Were one of the biggest agencies in the country.
Woman: And one of the best.
Samowitz: That sounds better coming from one of our parents.
Woman: Absolutely one of the best.
Samowitz: We do international work, as I said. Weve been to the
United Arab Emirates. Were going to Saudi Arabia. We have a lot
of people with expertise, a lot of staff who can help. We began the
process in Jordan. We helped the Jordanians open their first two group
homes. Its been a great honor for us to go to the Middle East.
Its good for everybody.
You can learn more
about our agency through the tour were going to give you shortly.
Well go downstairs and see two schools, one clinic, one rehabilitation
center and one employment program.
Princess Sameera: How is YAI organized?
Samowitz: We have eight agencies in one. We provide education, employment,
health services, group homes, day programs as well as day treatment
Cooper: Is each one a separate 501(c)3?
Samowitz: Yes. The network is made up of different agencies. Each agency
focuses on a certain area.
Princess Sameera: But they are separate?
Samowitz: Thats right. How do you see us helping you in Saudi
Arabia, given what were doing? What do you think the needs are?
Princess Sameera: We could benefit from information about how you formed,
what services you provide, as well as your strategy for reaching people.....
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from the Joe
Therapy Horses Help Vets to Heal
Pantoliano He Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional
A Teacher Who Moves Mountains
Saudi Arabia A Princess Seeks
a World of Change
Amato He Sees Music
Humor Adulthood is Overrated
George Covington The Thing About Getting Old
in the Geri Jewell Issue; Humor Adulthood is Overrated; Ashley
Fiolek Balancing Work and Play; Sen. Harkin The Affortable
Care Act; China A Teacher Who Moves Mountains; Saudi Arabia
A Princess Seeks a World of Change; George Covington The Thing
About Getting Old; Derek Amato He Sees Music; Joe Pantoliano
He Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional; Asylum Book
Excerpt; Geri Jewell A Good Act to Follow; Brad Hennefer
Loves His Tee Time; Equine Therapy Horses Help Vets to Heal;
ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...