Sobhi and the Untapped Potential
An autistic child begins to discover his arithmetic potential at an inclusive public school in Alexandria thanks to a teacher
Alexandria, Egypt - "Sobhi is a trouble maker. He doesn’t sit, read or write.”This is how his fellow students described him to their teacher Hanaa after she asked them why they refused to sit next to him in the class.
Hanaa Mohamed Ali is a mathematics teacher at Aziz Abaza Elementary School in Alexandria. This was her first experience with fourth-grader Sobhi who suffers from autism. She first asked him for his side of the story. "They don't like me because I don't know how to speak well" he replied.
Hanaa had already noticed that the child spoke with difficulty and his words were not easily understood. She asked his classmates for more background information to find an important piece of information: Sobhi has a twin sister in the nearby class.
The teacher thought that perhaps the presence of his sister in the same class would help with his inclusion and smoother communication with the other students, so she suggested that change. To her surprise, the teacher’s request was faced with total rejection from the little sister!
Hana quotes his sister saying: "He distracts and holds me back, Ms. Hanaa! Even at home, mom always orders me to take care of him: feed him, bring him stuff, help him study. She says to me: “You take care of yourself more than your brother” I felt so relieved that we were not together in the same class. It’s just too much. I want to make myself a future!”
Hanaa felt great sympathy for the two children: one of whom suffers from a disorder and the other who holds heavy responsibility at an early age. She asked the child to have a call with her mother to discuss the situation and draw her attention to the fact that the sister is overwhelmed with heavy burdens that affect her relationship with her brother.
The next day, Hanaa’s math lesson was about "hundreds of thousands". She wrote a preliminary question on the whiteboard: a number made of one, tens, hundreds, and thousands. She then asked the children who can read it out loud.
Sobhi raised his hand asking for the permission to answer, but his classmates' reaction was disappointing. Hanaa describes it saying: "The whole class said that he won’t be able to answer as he can’t read. I told them to mind their own business and invited Sobhi to come close to the whiteboard to read."
Sobhi read the number incorrectly because he started from right to left. Hanaa corrected his way of thinking and asked him to try again. While thinking through his second attempt, one of the other students shouted with sarcasm “For God’s sake Ms. Hanaa, he can’t do it!”
Hanaa asked the vocal child to come to stand beside Sobhi in front of the whiteboard and read the number. He failed.
Moments later, after taking his chance to think again, Sobhi read the number correctly. The class was silenced in astonishment for a moment, then applauded Sobhi, probably for the first time ever.
Hanaa tells that ever since, Sobhi became one of the most engaging students in the class. His mother called to thank her, saying that he loved her from the first day of this school year. Hanaa asked for a meeting with the mother to help her more in dealing with the twins.
Hanaa received training from UNICEF to include differently-abled children in class with other children. The organization also equipped the resource room at the same school for these children to receive additional learning support sessions individually and in small groups.
Hanaa's school is one of Alexandria’s inclusive schools supported by UNICEF and funded by the European Union as part of the “Expanding Access to Education and Protection for at Risk Children in Egypt” program. Hanaa, and many other teachers, received trainings supported by UNICEF in partnership with Ain Shams University, Alexandria University and Zagazig University to support awareness and professional development in inclusive education.
To date, 290 schools in Alexandria, Beheira, Assiut, Sohag, Qena, Gharbia and Matrouh governorates have been equipped to better accommodate different learning styles and provide quality educational opportunities for all children.
By 2020, the program aims at addressing learning needs of around 6,000 differently-abled children included in the 290 public schools. In addition, a total of 100,000 children will benefit from the improved teaching and more child-friendly environment in these targeted schools.