Autism Speaks co-founders Suzanne and Bob Wright kicked off a visit to the Middle East on Thursday, April 16, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where they spent two full days in Riyadh. There, they meet with scientists and researchers, as well as with high level officials to encourage enhanced support for autism research and awareness within Saudi Arabia.
At a welcome reception on Thursday evening, HRH Prince Abdullah Elah, brother of Saudi
Suzanne Wright, Dr. Saleh Al Salehi, Bob Wright
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, spoke of his brother's interest in autism and encouraged continued communications between His Majesty and Autism Speaks. The Wrights thanked HRH Prince Abdullah Elah for the Arab League's crucial support of passing World Autism Awareness Day at the United Nations.
On the morning of Friday, April 17, the Wrights and Autism Speaks Vice President of Scientific Affairs Andy Shih, Ph.D., visited the Prince Salman Center for Disabilities. Dr. Sultan Al Sedairy and Heidi Al Askary led a presentation on autism research in Saudi Arabia. They discussed the importance of robust prevalence data, as well as the urgent need for better medical care for people with autism and for more awareness. Following the presentation, Dr. Talat Al Wazna of the Saudi Autistic Society spoke about the challenges which still exist in the public's understanding of autism and the importance of early diagnosis and early intervention. Later in the day Al Watan, Saudi Arabia's leading newspaper, interviewed the Wrights.
On Saturday, April 18, the Wrights and Dr. Shih visited two leading Saudi Arabian hospitals with dedicated autism research teams. The first meeting, held at the King Faisal Special Hospital and Research Centre, was led by Dr. Sultan Al Sedairy and attended by researchers and clinicians. They discussed collaborative opportunities to develop autism public health statistics in Saudi Arabia as well as the possible roles of genetic and environmental factors in autism.
The Wrights then met with Minister of Information Dr. Abdul Aziz Al Kohja. During their discussions, the Wrights talked about the success of the Ad Council campaign in raising autism awareness in the United States and the recent awareness campaign in Doha. The Minister committed to launching a large campaign on television, billboards, and the in newspapers for autism. They were joined by the Deputy Minister of Information Dr. Abdul Aziz Salameh, who reiterated the importance of educating the public about autism, and the need for greater awareness in the Kingdom.
Later, the Wrights were given a tour of King Fahad Medical City and the Behavioral Pediatrics department, led by Dr. Saleh Al Salehi. As at specialized autism centers in the United States, so many families come to this facility for a definitive autism diagnosis that there is a lengthy waiting list. The doctors in the department stressed the need for more professional capacity to support concerned families, as well as increased autism awareness in
HRH Princess Al Johara Bint Faisal Al Saud invited the Wrights to visit one of Riyadh's early intervention schools. Suzanne Wright toured the school, known as the "Mother of Faisal Autism Centre," and met with students and teachers. Princess Al Johara gave a presentation on the awareness campaign she has begun, which includes posters and leaflets handed out in malls and schools which say: "A whisper to my society, I can see and I can play, but I need a bigger chance. I am an autistic child." Princess Al Johara pledged her commitment to Autism Speaks and their ongoing collaborative efforts in Saudi Arabia, particularly with the awareness campaign, and the support of the Ministry of Information.
The Wrights also met with HRH Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, the largest foreign investor in the U.S. and a nephew of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, at his private office at Kingdom Holdings in Riyadh. A prominent philanthropist for people with disabilities, Prince Al Waleed took interest in the work of Autism Speaks, and agreed there is much important work to be done on the issue of autism in Saudi Arabia.
Suzanne and Bob Wright concluded their trip with an interview conducted by journalist Lubna Hussein on the Saudi TV show, "Bridges." The hour-long program was dedicated to autism and looked back at the achievements made and goals to pursue in Saudi Arabia. The program included a 13-minute version of "Autism Every Day," subtitled in Arabic, to demonstrate the challenges of raising a child with autism and the affect it can have on families. The Wrights left Saudi Arabia to attend the Shaffallah Forum in Qatar, and pledged to continue Autism Speaks' support for the ongoing efforts in Saudi Arabia, helping to ensure a commitment to research, treatment and awareness in the Kingdom.