Massachusetts autism center will help build school in United Arab Emirates

Jennifer Lord

The New England Center for Children has been recruited by the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi to establish a school for autistic children in the United Arab Emirates' capital.

The 10-year agreement, signed last week at the Sea Palace in Abu Dhabi by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and New England Center for Children CEO Vincent Strully Jr., will not only bring the center's programs to the Arab nation, but it will also bring funding for new research, administration and treatment programs to the Rte. 9 school.

"It's an incredible recognition of our work," said Strully as he addressed the staff yesterday. "We should feel honored and flattered that when they shopped the world for autism services, they chose us."

The center's relationship with Abu Dhabi actually began a decade ago, when the parents of an Abu Dhabi 3-year-old were referred by a Boston hospital. Services for special needs children in the emirate are limited and the school was asked to supply a teacher for the child, according to Daniel Gould, the director for the Abu Dhabi program.

Gould does not expect to have difficulty recruiting teachers for the new program, since he has always had to turn away eager applicants for the existing position in Abu Dhabi.

"It's a great opportunity for our teachers to do great things for a country that hasn't had these services previously," Gould said. Abu Dhabi "is really at a point when they're focusing on the infrastructure for their entire country."

This is not the first time the emirate has shopped stateside for services. Johns Hopkins Medicine has been contracted to manage Tawam Hospital, Abu Dhabi's largest hospital, and the Cleveland Clinic earlier this month was tapped to manage Shaikh Khalifa Medical City. Earlier this year it struck a deal with France to build a Louvre Museum.

The financial details of the agreement are confidential, Strully said, but he anticipates the deal will go a long way in helping the school further delve into the needs of children with autism.

"These children and their families deserve the best and the most professional attention we can provide for them and, thanks to this agreement, this will soon be available here at home in Abu Dhabi," Prince Nahyan said in a statement. "This is a major step toward implementing the vision of his Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and ruler of Abu Dhabi, to establish world-class facilities and services for all children with special needs within our country."

In November, the center will open the first of eight planned classrooms where each child will receive intensive behavioral instruction based on applied behavior analysis. Over the next two years, it will gradually add the full spectrum of services, including early assessment and intervention, preschool programming, residential services for severe cases, family support services, professional training and development and a research center.

Staff members recruited for the work will earn their regular salary as well as an annual bonus, likely under $10,000. They will live rent-free and receive a monthly living allowance of $500, six or seven weeks of vacation and a health/beach club membership.

English is a commonly used language in Abu Dhabi, but staff will be also be training Arabic-speaking personnel there, Gould said.

Autism cases are on the rise in the United Arab Emirates, just as they are in the United States, Strully said. Autism affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans of which 600,000 are children.

"It's the same around the world," Strully said. "All races, creeds and classes. There's clearly a genetic origin - all the signs point to that. What is abundantly clear is that it is not caused by vaccines. That's been proven by science, again and again. It's such a distraction. There is money that is being wasted (studying the vaccine link to autism) when we have these kids who need to be treated now.

"I can't understand why (most autism funding) is being spent on finding a cause," he added. "We need to find a cause, but that's 30, 40 years down the line. This generation of children, the next generation of children, need to be treated now."

In addition to Abu Dhabi, the center has staff treating children in Qatar, Bermuda and Vancouver and has ongoing relationships with institutions in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand and Uganda.

"This situation changes everything for us," Strully said. "We've always wanted to be a little Mayo Clinic for autism. This just gets us closer."

Strully hopes the partnership will not only allow the school to expand its services but also to complete and publish what he termed an online "encyclopedia" detailing the principles of applied behavior analysis for parents and educators.

"Here at the center, we have had to turn away hundreds of families from around the world," Strully said. "We're just not big enough to serve everyone, and there's a substantial need. We want to be able to expand the knowledge that is out there."

Jennifer Lord of The MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.) can be contacted at 508-626-3880 or