On the spectrum

Why one determined woman temporarily turned Egypt’s pyramids blue

In Egypt, autism has long been a problem that, for a plethora of reasons, has eluded understanding among most people. “People thought it meant ‘mental retardation,'” Iman Gaber, head of the child and adolescent mental health program at Egypt’s Ministry of Health, told NPR. “And there was this one person who thought it meant ‘street child.’” But that is all changing and Gaber credits the efforts of a determined woman who has been working tirelessly to raise awareness for autism for the last 17 years — almost her entire career.

That woman is Dahlia Soliman, an educational psychologist in Cairo. Soliman is the founder of the Egyptian Autistic Society and has diagnosed thousands of children — many of whom were misdiagnosed with other problems. “In suburban or rural areas, people say [children with autism] have been touched by the devil or cursed — and sometimes parents even cage them,” Soliman said. “They’re very poorly treated. They’re not understood.” But her campaign to educate the Egyptian people about autism has made dramatic strides, especially recently.

Many more people in Egypt are having discussions about autism — thanks, in part, to her creative publicity stunts. In April, Soliman turned the Great Pyramids of Giza blue for Autism Awareness Month. She did the same with other iconic landmarks like the Alexandria Library, the Cairo Tower, and the Citadel. That same month, one of Egypt’s high-profile and more popular public officials made a deeply personal disclosure. Vice Admiral Mohab Mamish, head of the Suez Canal Authority, shocked the nation when he admitted that his young grandson had been diagnosed with autism.

Soliman remains determined. She started the Egyptian Autistic Society at the age of 24, and now, in her forties, it employs dozens of people. She’s met with Egypt’s president and urged him to make addressing autism a part of his agenda, and she’s turning her sights on the education system next. “There are a lot of legal loopholes that make it difficult to mainstream autistic children in school,” she says. “I want to prove that autistic children are educable.”

Read the full story at NPR.

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