Autism is the world’s fastest growing developmental disability, many people who are not directly impacted with a child or family member diagnosed probably do not understand autism, how those with autism can improve, and what they can do to help them or the families. While many organisations focus on autism awareness, my perspective over the last 18 years of working with the autism community around the world is that “awareness raises more questions, education provides more answers.”
At Bahrain’s innovative Health & Wellness Conference – Autism, Family, & Community — education was at the heart of its mission. Sana Ghawas, conference founder and parent of a child with autism, formed a strategic partnership with Think, the leading Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) Center in Bahrain that brought parents and professionals from the GCC to the country for the one-day conference. Sana, along with Think Clinical Director Alexandrea Wigand, MS, MBA, BCBA, IBA and Think founder Ingy Alireza, Ed.M., BCBA selected a group of experts that shared comprehensive and research-supported strategies on health, nutrition, behaviour analysis, and exercise. What was presented benefited both the child with autism and the families for the best possible results.
“My reason for this conference is a simple sentence; you first. Parents need to take care of their health and well-being because it is the best way to face our journey with autism and help our children succeed,” said Sana Ghawas, also the founder of Wonder Fitness.
Many parents of those with autism – especially moms – often cry tears of sadness and loneliness. On Saturday, the room was filled with tears of inspiration. For some parents this was the first time they did not feel alone. They could talk about their child and know there was no judgement on them or their children. The conference was about support, education, and hope – with an action plan.
Professionals also attended, which included special education teachers, exercise professionals, sport coaches, speech therapists, occupational therapists, and behavioural therapists. The behavioural therapists also earned continuing education credits for their professional certification.
The conference was kicked off by Coach Salah Alshatti from Kuwait who challenged parents with activities to think about the value they put on their health. Coach Salah had the crowd moving and laughing as he inspired them to start exercising for themselves and their children. Dr Aseel Alsaleh from Saudi Arabia, lectured on the importance of nutrition, providing practical tips on how they can improve their diet, while also clarifying food allergies versus food intolerance for those with autism. Think Clinical Supervisor and Board & International Certified Behaviour Analyst Zahera Alanfooz educated parents on the importance of following research-supported strategies to help their children make progress in therapy and life-skills.
As the founder of Exercise Connection in the United States, I shared the research that shows exercise goes beyond the health-related benefits for those with autism and can improve a person’s behaviour, language development, social skills, academics, and motor skills. Both the parents and professionals were inspired as they watched videos of children’s success in Think’s ABA programme, Wonder Fitness exercise sessions, and Exercise Connection’s exercise sessions and internationally adopted United States exercise certificate.
Emotions that most families face around the world when having a child with autism are anger, sadness, and self-hostility. In the United States many persons, companies, and organisations have taken advantage of this by selling families “false hope.” Saturday’s conference was breaking down barriers and speaking nothing but the truth.
What I have experienced working with parents, professionals, and organisations throughout the United States and in nine countries is that many of those with autism are asked to adjust to our world. And the truth is, we need to adjust to their world.
Ala Ghawas, uncle to a nine-year old boy with autism asked this question during my presentation: “What can I do to interact with my nephew?”
This is a question not only going through the minds of the family members, but often the dad’s and siblings of those with autism. We should not act differently. Those with autism want to be treated like any other person and be accepted, included, and understood by society. Whether the child has good communication or not, we need to speak to them.  While some individuals with autism may have difficulty speaking that does not mean they are deaf. In most cases, they can hear you and understand what you are saying. Try to include them in any activities you do throughout the community but recognise that you may have to adjust the way you communicate or get them involved in these activities. You may have to adjust your approach and communication styles by using visual supports, allow more time for them to respond, and use what motivates them to encourage their participation. Lastly, and most importantly, show them love.
This conference was significant for the GCC and quite frankly even from what I have seen at conferences in the United States. The “you first” mission that Sana presented to the families and professionals left everyone supported, educated, and inspired. To continue to improve the lives of those with autism, and the families, it will take more conferences like this and the understanding & acceptance about those with autism from people in Bahrain and the GCC. I am thankful and thrilled to have been able to participate in such a groundbreaking conference. I am confident this will just be the first of many more to come. Thank you Sana, the planning committee, sponsors, and all that participated that made this such a rich experience for everyone involved.

David S Geslak, BS, ACSM EP-C, CSCS the founder of Exercise Connection, has pioneered research supported exercise tools and programmes to engage and improve the lives of those with autism. David also created the Autism Exercise Specialist Certificate in partnership with American College of Sports Medicine. He has educated and trained professionals in nine countries.
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