Finding the right education for a child with special needs can seem like a momentous task, especially if you are new to the UAE and don’t know where to turn for advice. But facilities are available here to suit children of all abilities and needs.

UAE Federal Law 29 (2006) guarantees a person with special needs ‘access to equal opportunities of education within all educational institutions’.

In reality, though, most private schools have a selective entrance process which excludes children they think would struggle with the curriculum.

However, some UAE schools are being praised for their inclusive approach. In Dubai, the Taaleem Schools – which include Greenfield Community College and Dubai British School – are commended, particularly for their early years programs.

[Souqalmal.com’s Schools section now has a filter to allow parents to search for schools that are inclusive to special needs children.]

In Sharjah, the Australian International School accepts up to two special needs children per class. In Abu Dhabi, the British School of Al Khubairat has been applauded for providing special needs support early on to children already in their system, and BSAD (the British School of Abu Dhabi) has a high proportion of children with special needs.

In Dubai, 42 percent of schools (52 out of 123) will accept special needs education applications. Post-application, the school will assess the child to understand the level of support required. Some schools have their own trained teachers or, alternatively, allow parents to hire a specially trained teacher to follow their child in school.

Table: KHDA school rating/ inclusion of special needs children

KHDA rating No. schools Can accept SEN children?
Outstanding 12 8
Good 48 21
Acceptable 38 15
Unsatisfactory 1 0
Not available 24 7

Source: Souqalmal.com data

Table: ADEC school rating/ inclusion of special needs children

ADEC rating No. schools Can accept SEN children?
High performing 21 14
Satisfactory 14 1
In need of significant improvement 28 5
Not available 20 2

Source: Souqalmal.com data

Boosting points

Janice Kittby has a masters in special needs and has developed a set of 68 e-books and activities for young children struggling with their reading, which she sells on myfirstreaders.com. Janice taught children at Al Khubairat School for 11 years.

“The school definitely has good learning support in place,” she says. “They identify children pretty quickly, usually in the first month or two of term, and start a program right away to help them.”

As an incentive to encourage more schools to accept children with special needs, KHDA inspectors award points to schools for accepting these children. That means failing schools often take on children with special needs to boost their numbers and points. But sometimes children are asked to leave at the age of nine; after then, less support is provided.

Sue arrived in Abu Dhabi in August 2012 with her two daughters, the youngest of whom, Thea, then aged five, has since been diagnosed with autism. She found a school she was happy with, which accepted both girls, although Thea was placed in an FS1 class two school years behind her peers.

Table: Dubai school curriculum type/ inclusion of special needs children

Curriculum Can accept SEN children?
American 10
American & IB 1
British 24
British & IB 4
Canadian 1
IB 5
Indian 6

Source: Souqalmal.com data

Table:  Abu Dhabi school curriculum type/ inclusion of special needs children

Curriculum Can accept SEN children?
American 1
British 13
British/American 3
IB 1
Canadian 1
Indian 1
Other 2

Source: Souqalmal.com data

Special programs

“We were fine with this as it seemed appropriate educationally for her,” says Sue. “There were teething issues for Thea at first, but I felt she was doing OK. However, following a visiting educational psychologist’s report the school withdrew her place and gave us until half term – which was about two weeks – to find something else.

“A friend suggested I try Al Muna. They were amazing with Thea and she was really happy there. But we took the difficult decision to return to England. She’s now in a special school and doing really well.

“I found teachers in the UAE were inexperienced with SEN (special education needs) children and often fearful of trying to help, and parents were much more judgmental. But we found the other children very accepting. We were lucky that we found a great school with fabulous staff. Even so, they told me they had neither the provision nor the resources to keep her beyond foundation stage.”

Sheena Wilson is founder and manager of the Wilson Centre for Children with Disabilities in Sharjah. She set up the center 14 years ago after a boy she knew was thrown out of school for having a learning difficulty and she realized a place was needed where children with learning difficulties could come to learn.

“We’ve started an excellent program for autistic children which is really getting results,” says Sheena. “I’ve designed the program so the behavioral therapy works with speech therapy and we also work on their nutrition, which is important in tackling autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).”

Razan Nabulsi is Center Director of Abu Dhabi-based ‘brain training’ academy Dots and Links. She has worked with children and teenagers with learning difficulties for the past eight years, and is optimistic that more services are now available for them.

“More schools are interested in having learning support departments to support children with special needs. Also, in the last four years, more international programs that support struggling students have been implemented in the UAE.”

Rachel Jex has a support group on ADHD and to get more information about education for your child you can contact her on [email protected]