by Belinda Breeze

Autism, or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a neurodevelopmental condition that affects how a person interacts, communicates, and perceives the world. It’s called a ‘spectrum’ disorder because it encompasses a wide range of symptoms, behaviours, and challenges that can vary greatly among individuals. Ambreen Suhaib, a writer and speaker for autism advocacy, is the mother to twin boys with autism, as well as a neurotypical five-year-old. Education UAE spoke to Ambreen about the challenges she faces and why acceptance, inclusion, and understanding are key to creating a world where people with autism can reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives.

Education UAE: Can you tell us a little about how and when your twin boys were diagnosed? Ambreen Suhaib: My twins were officially diagnosed at the age of three. But, of course, I knew a lot earlier that they were different. They missed all their milestones. They never pointed at anything or followed us when we were pointing to something; they had laughing spells for no reason; they always preferred playing alone; they had no response to name; there was no eye contact; they toe-walked; they were very anti-social; never bothered about what was happening around them; they never liked being hugged; they hated sand; they were obsessed with wheels and ceiling fans spinning; they were infatuated with certain toys; they were extremely picky eaters; and they had no babbling or baby sounds. We waited until they were one, but after that, the symptoms got clearer, and I started reading about them. They never asked for anything until they were 2.8; they were just crying, and I used to ‘mom guess’ for their needs. Somewhere, I knew after reading about the symptoms that it was autism, but I am a mother. I just ignored it for a few weeks, but eventually, when the psychologist confirmed it at 2.8, I cried rivers because getting a diagnosis for two, not one, was a blow I never expected (tears roll down my cheeks while I write this because, not in my wildest imagination, did I ever think that I would have not one but two kids with autism). Oh God, I love them so much. Education UAE: What impact did this have on you, both as a mother and a wife? Ambreen Suhaib: The whole dynamic of motherhood changes once you get the diagnosis. As a mother, I feel there are stages. I was hurt, depressed, angry, and upset for a good year. They are my firstborn; therefore, I was excited, but after the diagnosis, I had to rethink everything. They missed all their milestones, and seeing them be nonverbal used to break me every day at that time. But as I have always said, it’s a journey, and I’ve learned as I went along! I bounced back and unlearned many things to be the mother they needed. But yes, it’s a psychological war on a daily basis, but I fight, and there are days when I take complete rest too. I think the wife role suffers the most because it becomes more about helping your special child, and since I had two, it was double of everything, but my husband has been supportive; therefore, we managed. Education UAE: For parents experiencing something similar, what advice would you share?

Ambreen Suhaib: Breathe! You need to wholeheartedly accept your child’s autism. You can’t undo it for sure, but you can definitely help them live better with the condition. Focus on your child’s strengths and not their deficits. Celebrate their little achievements. Give your children time to learn; if they are not achieving a goal right now, take a break and try again. Autism is like a journey where you will need resources; therefore, spend wisely and save. Learn about your child’s condition and question their therapists and teachers. Remember, you have to work as a team with schools and centres to see progress in your child. It is okay if your child doesn’t go to mainstream school; special schools may be the places where they will learn more. There is no shame if your child is nonverbal; words are not the only form of communication. Using sign language, picture cards, or any device to communicate is absolutely fine. Take your special child out in public, let them enjoy life, and stop worrying about how people are looking. You have something different, and something different always catches your attention. Lastly, be your child’s advocate and tell people about their condition. Do your part to raise more awareness about the condition so that there is more acceptance in society. Education UAE: What resources have you found to be the most useful or beneficial? Ambreen Suhaib: The one book that I recommend all parents read is ‘Let Me Hear Your Voice’ by Catherine Maurice. It was the first book I read after the diagnosis, and it blew me away. There is another book, written by an autistic Japanese boy, Naomi Higashida when he was just 13, ‘The Reason I Jump’. It gives you an insight into how an autistic brain thinks while doing all those things we don’t understand. And lastly, ‘It Takes Two to Talk’ by Elaine Weitzman. Education UAE: Your youngest son is neurotypical, what is the relationship like between him and the twins?

Ambreen Suhaib: That is the part where sometimes I struggle the most. He is five years younger than them. For his little brain initially, it was too much to absorb that his brothers are different. He tries to play with them; he will run after them, and after almost two years of him pushing, now I see the twins sometimes will go tap on his shoulder and say ‘run’ and ahhh, tears well up inside of me. He asked a lot of questions in between, like why they hit, why they don’t talk, etc. As of now, we just tell him that they are different and he should help them when they need it and be polite. Nowadays, sometimes when the twins are upset or crying, he will come to me and say, “Maybe you should calm him down,” or when he goes out alone with me, he will pick something up after his shopping and say, “Maybe we should take this for Hadi/ Ahmed?” Or if the TV is loud, he will tell me to lower the volume if the twins are closing their ears, saying, “It’s too loud for them.” Seeing two special brothers since his birth, I feel, has made him a sensitive child. All I hope and pray is that he grows up to be a nice brother to them. Education UAE: What hobbies do your children enjoy? Ambreen Suhaib: They love going out to malls and play areas. These days they enjoy swimming (something I thought they would never learn, but this year they surprised me), and they love music— listening to it or playing piano. I don’t know if I will have enough resources in the future, but I would love to put them in piano classes. They don’t speak, but they love singing; that’s how crazy awesome autism is! ‘Unstoppable’ by Sia is their top favourite to listen to and sing. Education UAE: What do you most want people to know about children with autism? Ambreen Suhaib: They are also like any other children you see around you, but their brains are wired differently.

They are just different; they perceive things differently, and they do things differently. Acceptance and inclusion are their basic rights, not a favour from anyone. They should be accepted the way they are. Stop looking at them as anyone less. They are just different. And no, all autistic kids do not have an extra talent; only a few of them do! Stimming (repetitive behaviour) helps them regulate themselves, so let them be! Staring at them once is fine because I understand that different people always get attention, but staring at them as if they are aliens is uncomfortable. Please refrain. If my children are not being harmful to anyone in public places and you are still uncomfortable, then maybe you can leave because I won’t. Autism is not contagious, so if you want an autistic child to leave just because your typical child might pick up behaviours, no, he won’t! Lastly, please be tolerant of different children, be kind, and teach your kids to be kind too. Kindness doesn’t cost anything! Education UAE: Finally, what is your favorite time of the week with your boys? Ambreen Suhaib: I think it’s every night! When we are done with dinner, we all sit down in the lounge to watch TV together, snuggle, or just sit down in the lamp lights they love a lot. I feel so blessed in those moments. Those moments are a true depiction of how beautiful it is to have your own little world in this gigantic world. And when I take them out to their favourite trampoline parks or rides, the way they laugh, smile, and look at me laughing while enjoying themselves just makes me thank God for them because I don’t see autistic children; I see just happy children with the most beautiful angelic smiles ever.