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Don’t let go of my hand: why a father’s presence matters for a child with autism

Date: May 21, 2024

An expert from Qatar Foundation highlights the crucial role fathers play in shaping a child’s personality and use the same pictures from the QF link.

Doha, Qatar: During a special event at the school, Abdullah Al-Muhannadi, a student at Renad academy, part of Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education, proudly stood before his peers and teachers. Spotting his father among the attendees, Abdullah waved enthusiastically and announced, “This is my father.”

Abdullah’s desire for everyone to know who his father was is a direct reflection of the support his father – Lawyer Khalid Al-Muhannadi has shown him. Since Abdullah was diagnosed with autism, his father has stood by him like a rock, literally and figuratively holding his hand through everything, be it the school corridors of their majlis – a sitting room used for social gatherings.

“Since Abdullah was diagnosed with autism, I realized my critical role as a father and reorganized my priorities. My number one goal became to care for my son and develop his skills to facilitate his integration into society,” said Al-Muhannadi.

“I did not withdraw into myself, and I did not feel embarrassed about my son’s condition, but rather I embraced it with pride.”

The father and son duo are constant companions, together they explore places in Qatar, travel and engage in social activities. “Our trips together have allowed us to form a deeper bond and strengthened Abdullah’s personality, particularly his self-confidence and emotional stability”, said Al-Muhannadi.

A study conducted by the Doha International Family institute (DIFI), a member of Qatar Foundation, showed that active parental presence positively affects a child’s overall development by providing a supportive environment. And that for children with autism, parents must provide emotional and educational support appropriate to their special needs.

Dr. Khaled Al-Naama, Director of the Family Research and Policy Department at DIFI, said: “Emotional support from parents greatly helps children with autism overcome challenges and be successful. It provides them with the required social skills that help them carry out simple daily tasks and become independent.”

“The father in particular plays an important role in enhancing communication and building relationships with children with autism, and this includes active attention and participation in activities. The father can form a positive model for the child in communication, motivate him to develop his social skills, and make him feel safe and reassured,” Dr. Al-Naama added.

Another study conducted by DIFI on the well-being of families living with autism revealed that isolating children with autism and not including them in social events leads to them feeling segregated and losing their sense of belonging.

Dr. Al-Naama stressed the importance of community awareness in building children’s self-confidence and recommended that they be accompanied to social events that enhance their personal development and avoid noisy or crowded environments to ensure an effective educational and social environment.

He said Abdullah is the perfect example of how his father’s support in ensuring his son attends social events and goes to public places since his childhood now means he is comfortably able to and see them as safe spaces.

According to Al-Muhannadi, when fathers ignore the needs of their children with autism and shift caregiving responsibilities solely to mothers, they are inadvertently depriving their children of basic life skills.

“It’s not always easy but I make sure I am present at every school event, because I realize how much joy this brings him, and how much it enhances his mental health,” said Al-Muhannadi.

He pointed out that unfortunately those with autism can suffer from bullying, not just from outsiders but even within the family, often in the form of isolation. He urged parents to not avoid their children under the pretense of being busy and that nothing should be more important than their child.

“It saddens me greatly when I see parents not attend school events or public events with their child as by doing so, they are not only stealing from their children opportunities to learn social skills but are also missing out on making beautiful memories.”

Dr. Al-Naama emphasized the importance of autism awareness campaigns that educate the community about symptoms and behaviors of children with autism, as this improves understanding and support. He said: “Parents sharing their experiences improves awareness, encourages integration and acceptance of needs of individuals with autism.”

Reflecting on his journey as the father of child with autism, Al-Muhannadi said: “Abdullah added meaning to my life. He taught me how to overcome difficulties and motivated me to strive to provide opportunities for him and his peers.”

He added: “My message to parents of children with autism is that you have a wonderful child who deserves all the love, care and most importantly, your presence. Make your children a permanent priority, be proud of them and never let go of their hand.”

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