News & Current Affairs

Meet The Iraqi Mother Sharing Daily Experiences With Her Autistic Children

By Azeezat Okunlola | Jun 8, 2023
A lady in Iraq named Shaimaa Alhashimi has taken it upon herself to tackle society's indifference towards her two autistic children by broadcasting recordings of her daily life online, where she quickly gained both fans and critics.
Alhashimi believes that her acts give hope to parents in a similar circumstance, although internet trolls think she shouldn't be proud of such kids and that she's just earning money off of them.
"I didn't want other parents to suffer like me, and I wanted to offer a glimmer of hope to every mother and father," she explains.
The mother of three points out, "Seventeen years ago, we did not know much about autism, and our understanding was that the child would sit in the corner, is not very social, and speaks very little."
Both Aya, age 17, and Mohammed, age 11, are autistic. The optic nerve was negatively impacted by the poor development of the brain's outer layer, therefore they are also blind.
According to Shaimaa, Aya's autism symptoms, which included spinning in circles as well as walking on her toes, first appeared when she was four years old. Autism prevalence among Iraqi children is unknown because it is so challenging to obtain a proper diagnosis.
About 20,000 children in Iraq are on the autism spectrum, according to an estimate by psychologist and head of the Babylon Centre for Autism, Speech and Learning Difficulties in Baghdad Shatha Ali Khadum.
However, this is likely to be an underestimate because being disabled is stigmatised in Iraq, hence no parent would want their child "labelled."
According to Ms Khadum, "there is currently no government support specifically for this group, and there are no government centres or shelters dedicated to them."
Shaimaa decided to take matters into her own hands and homeschool Aya after she had an incident in one of those institutions when she was 11 years old.
Once when Shaimaa was running late to pick up her kid, the child was abandoned in the guard's quarters. Shaimaa feels like she was a subject of harassment.
She claims that Aya pushed her hand away and made an expression of discomfort while she checked her for signs of abuse or resistance.
"Even to this day, when we try to hug Aya, she leaves a small distance, and if we pull her closer to us, she pulls away."
Shaimaa claims she was unable to enrol her blind and autistic children at a specialised school.
She also decided against enrolling them in a private school, despite being able to foot it, because she had heard from other parents that their autistic children were not accepted.
For Shaimaa, the thought of putting her children through all they had been through is intolerable. "When you send an autistic child to school and they feel happy, then lose that feeling, do you know what that does to them?"
Because of this, Shaimaa and her husband put a lot of resources into raising their kids.
Shaimaa tracked down experts in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and the United States, and she even brought in a Braille instructor specifically for Mohammed.
Mohammed has an important role in the household, especially in matters involving his younger sister Aya, despite his young age.
Shaimaa claims that if Aya shows signs of anxiety, Mohammed is quick to reassure her.
Shaimaa and her family attract a lot of attention whenever they go out in public.
She remembers seeing Mohammed attempt to ascend the slide in a playground rather than using the stairs. Some parents were concerned that their kids would attempt something similar and get hurt.
Since these experiences have had an impact on Shaimaa's mental health, she wishes there was a law to hold those responsible for them accountable. "I would go home, not wanting to go out with my children again," she added.
As a result, Shaimaa got Aya and Mohammed badges which read "I have autism, be patient with me".
Shaimaa gets emotional when she tells me how another mother approached Mohammed one day to read his badge.
When she returned to her three kids, she instructed them to assist Mohammed in any way they could.
Following Covid's shutdown of all government centres in 2020, Shaimaa set up an Instagram account. She had initially been met with questions like "Why does this girl speak so slowly?"
After ignoring them for a while, Shaimaa observed her supporters remark that Aya has an autistic spectrum disorder.
The emotional and physical stress placed on parents is an often-overlooked aspect of autism spectrum disorder.
"Before, I had an immense fear of what was to come, my children's condition, what will happen to them if I am not around?" she explains.
"These thoughts haunt every mother every day. But now, it does not. Instead, I have hope and motivation. Aya relies on herself 70% of the time and Mohammed 90%."
Shaimaa's best advice for parents is to be patient.
"When you scold them or they sense you are annoyed, it's over. It may be difficult to make progress now but who knows in a year or two."