June 23, 2015. When he was just over a year old, Rahel noticed that her little boy, Ali, did not behave like other children. He liked to be alone, spending hours and hours in front of the television or staring at nothing at all. She tried playing games with him, but he didn’t seem to notice. When she called, he didn’t answer. He didn’t speak, or look others in the eye. Sometimes he was seized with uncontrollable fits of rage, screaming for hours.
For months, Rahel and her husband, who live in Al Eizarieh (Jerusalem), sought an answer. “I was never going to accept him sitting at home with me alone,” she said. “I insisted on finding a solution.”
None of the doctors they saw could put a name to the problem. Months later, they found themselves miles away, in the office of Dr. Jumanah Odeh, founder and director of the Palestinian Happy Child Center. Odeh is an internationally recognized public health expert specializing in child health.
“Dr. Odeh said it was ‘autism,’ but I didn’t know what that meant,” Rahel said. Like many mothers of autistic children, she felt torn by guilt and anger. Had she done something to cause this?
“It was the first time I had ever heard of it…. We were all wondering how did he get this disease and from where.”
Soon after, the family began working with the staff at PHCC to provide Ali with the tools – among them ongoing behavioral therapy — he needed to thrive both in school and at home.
At first, getting the diagnosis and starting treatment placed an even heavier strain on Rahel’s marriage, her relationship with her other children, for whom she had little time left over, and her relationships with relatives and neighbors.
“I became constantly nervous and angry. I used to have fights with my husband and tell him, ‘please, talk to your son, find a solution for your son!’ He used to come home tired and I would start fighting.”
Today, Ali does well in school and his parents are happy with his improvement and achievements.
“When Ali started getting better, my psychological condition improved, and my relationship with my husband improved as well… This has been a very painful and a very difficult experience, but with the support of the PHCC, it has gotten a bit easier. My son is improving every day, so I’m a bit more relaxed now.”
Ali’s need for treatment has also provided an unexpected benefit for his mother. In order to bring her child to the center, Rahel had to learn, for the first time in her life, to travel unaccompanied outside her home, crossing checkpoints between Al Eizarieh and Ramallah. She is proud of the independence she has earned over the past several years.
Some studies suggest that autism prevalence in developing countries may match that of the developing world, but while knowledge of its existence has become fairly widespread in the West in recent years, it is little known elsewhere.
Founded in Ramallah in 1994, the Palestinian Child Happy Center has been helping children with autism and other developmental disorders for over 20 years. The center strives to create a sense of normalcy for all children regardless of their political or socioeconomic circumstances.