It was 10 years ago when the nurse told me that my baby was born, I ran quickly to the birth room, and for the first time I held my son in my hands. I was so excited to meet the boy who I had waited so long for. And in that moment, I cried, because I already felt so attached to him – but what I could not have known was that this baby with the wide and beautiful eyes would make me not just a father, but a fighter.
From that moment, I never stopped looking at Abdullah's face, watching him grow up in front of my eyes, immortalizing the most beautiful moments of his childhood in my heart. I used to take a lot of photographs of him: playing, jumping, laughing, and dismantling toy cars to pull the magnets from them, just as I used to do when I was a child, bringing joy around the house. My child was the most beautiful thing in my life.
My son became one year old, then two, and I began to yearn for him to say the word every father waits to hear: "Daddy." But Abdullah was late in doing this. I was very anxious, even when my mother tried to reassure me by saying: "Don't be sad, Khaled, even you were late to speak." So, rather than worrying, I decided to visit the doctor with Abdullah.
Until then, Abdullah had not seen a doctor, except for some routine vaccinations. His heart was healthy, his lungs were working well, and he was not suffering from any serious health symptoms. The only thing that perhaps stood out was certain behavior that people might see as being stereotypical of children, such as flapping his hands. And he would spin himself around, which – combined with the delay in speaking – did begin to surprise me. But I never imagined what it actually indicated.
That visit to the doctor ended with me receiving a medical report stating that my son has autism.
In those moments, I found myself like someone thrown into a deep sea with a rare jewel, which they want to save at all costs, even though they are not a good swimmer. They stick to the only survival option: learning to swim at the moment of sinking.
That night, I realized that my son would need me badly in the next stages of his life. And since nothing is more precious to my heart than him, I decided to devote myself to him, treat him with love, and ensure that he would be fully integrated into society.
My first step was to leave my job and become a practicing lawyer, with the goal of advocating for the rights of my son and all children with autism in Qatar.
It was the start of a long journey, which required me to become both a scientific researcher and a human rights activist, as I started reading, educating myself, and participating in local and international seminars on autism. I also joined several committees, including the National Autism Committee, through which I and other parents called for our children to have more rights. And, in 2016, a meeting was held between officials from the Ministry of Public Health and official authorities in Qatar, which led to the country’s National Autism Plan.
At the same time as we were working to change in society's perception toward children with autism, and to raise public awareness of their abilities, I was waking up every morning thinking about how to integrate my son into a nursery that would accept him. I was moving my son from kindergarten to another, and he never responded.
Renad Academy, a member of Qatar Foundation, was launched in 2016, a specialized academy for children with autism - and its name reflects its mission. Just as Renad is the name of a tree from which we extract incense sticks with a pleasant smell, Renad Academy extracts the best from children with autism.
It was at Renad that I truly began to discover my child and realize just how smart he is, just as he began respond and develop. He excelled in Artificial Intelligence Games and in building Lego Cubes, which have convinced me that he will be a successful engineer in the future.
All of this increased my belief that autism is not an obstacle, and it increased my motivation to help ensure the true capabilities and qualities of autistic children are recognized, that they have the same opportunities as other children, and that their social rights are respected. And I am glad to see that so many Qatari institutions are also raising awareness about autism.
As we were passing by Qatar Foundation’s Headquarters on World Autism Day, my son asked me: "Why did they light this building in blue?” I told him: “They did it for you.”
Some say that men do not cry because we are strong, that we think more than we feel, but that is not true. Every day, we experience the most beautiful feelings, we live our children’s experiences with them, and we recognize our ability to give and to love. Crying is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of courage, and just as it can indicate sadness, so it can portray joy and pride.
I cried on the day I entered a meeting of teachers and parents at Renad Academy, and my son proudly said to them: "This is my father!"
My son accompanies me to the Majlis, and he competes with me in PlayStation games. We visit parks, malls, and cinemas, and we travel together.
I cried when my son played football in a training course organized by QF and the FC Foundation and competed in activities such as horse riding and swimming, achieving excellent results.
And as I continue to watch my child explore the world around him, I sit in front of the Azba farm I built for him in the backyard, watching him feed rabbits, stroke sheep, and care for fish and birds.
He accompanies me to the Majlis, and he competes with me in PlayStation games. Together with his sister, we visit parks, malls, and cinemas, and last month we explored Qitcom Qatar due to his interest in Artificial intelligence – an area which I hope our children, including those with autism, will find their future in.
My son also likes to travel. He has traveled with me to Kuwait and we hope to visit Turkey soon, so he can see the dolphins. Nine years have passed, and my precious jewel of a son, rather than drowning in life, has reached safety.
The power of recognition
When we leave this life, our children will stay. As parents of autistic children, one of our main concerns is what will happen to them after we have gone. What we can do is work hard for them, build a fairer future for them, so that we can see them entering into careers, marrying, having children, and living a normal life.
Let everyone know that the one walking next to you is your child”. Introduce them proudly to the community, and to the world. Our children are the flame of life. So why would we ever shy away from the light that this flame brings?
And so, to each father of an autistic son or daughter, I say: let everyone know that the one walking next to you is your child. Introduce him proudly to the community, and to the world. Our children are the flame of life. So why would we ever shy away from the light that this flame brings?