Photo: Chama Bendaoud, 13, and her paraprofessional checking her math homework. Photo by Stella Shi.
As Moroccan government enforces new policy on education for autistic children, families are still struggling to access basic rights.
By Stella Shi
Last updated December 2019
RABAT, Morocco — Aya Hajarabi’s curly hair is tied up in a bun with loose ends over her face. As her mother is talking to the psychiatrist, Aya observes them intently and repeatedly taps on her mom’s shoulder. Then she shouts the only word she knows: “Mama!” she screams in a piercing tone, hoping for attention. Aya is 26 and has never attended a mainstream school: None would accept her due to her autistic behaviors such as abnormal postures and struggles with language comprehension. Because of low awareness and a lack of autism professionals, treatment was delayed and so was ineffective in improving her behaviors and autonomy. But her mother, Soumia Amrani, is still hoping.
In Morocco, advocates estimate that 400,000 people have autism based on the worldwide average incidence.The exact number is not known because there are only about 20 to 30 doctors trained to diagnose autism in the entire country.
Mothers of children with autism interviewed for this article said autistic children in Morocco face serious discrimination and are often denied the chance of proper education. Family members said autism has long been little understood in Morocco, with neighbors and relatives mistakenly suspecting that an austistic child’s symptoms were the result of something the mother did wrong or that the child was possessed by demons. The mothers said many school directors told them autistic children were too much trouble and would negatively influence other students. It was hard to get a diagnosis, let alone treatment, and the children were left with no schools to attend. It’s a common situation for people with disabilities. A 2014 Moroccan government survey found that two out of three people with disabilities did not attend school, and only 5% finished secondary school.
Expensive treatment sessions and the need for a paraprofessional also put the families in despair. The government is moving to provide aid, but parents said the new system isn’t working yet. In June 2019, Morocco’s Ministry of Education announced a national inclusive education law for children with disabilities, which affirms the right of all children with disabilities to be able to attend any schools and their right to public education. However, not all parents are able to take advantage of resources provided by the government due to poor enforcement of the policy, and many are struggling to find accessible help.
While schools are required by law to accept all autistic children for enrollment, the child must be accompanied by an aide or paraprofessional throughout the school day, and to hire a paraprofessional can be a burden to families. According to Nabila Bensalah, founder of Association Miroir in Fez, and Soumia Amrani, president of the national Collectif Autisme Maroc, the normal rate for a paraprofessional in big cities such as Rabat and Casablanca is $400 per month minimum, and in other cities, it’s about $120-$150 per month.
On top of paraprofessionals, Meryem Ouahmane, a psychologist specializing in autism spectrum disorder, explains that families need a team of professionals to work with the child for different forms of treatments. For families who cannot pay for the paraprofessional, even with the new policy, the child will be unable to attend school.
Consequently, other efforts are being made by the Moroccan government to improve education for autistic children. The Ministry of Solidarity distributes Social Cohesion Aid to autism NGOs to support services provided to families. The aid helps pay for one paraprofessional shared by every five children, even though it’s supposed to be one on one. The National Initiative for Human Development, or INDH, also provides funds to associations to pay for transportation and supplemental materials such as training equipment and books. These governmental funds all go to associations instead of the families. Therefore, a family would only be able to access aid by joining an association, which often comes with a price. Associations only offer free services to families that earn below the poverty level; otherwise, all families need to pay $150-200 per month for the services, including trained professionals, paraprofessionals and workshops.
Some families are able to take advantage of these governmental regulations and funds. Chama Bendaoud is an eighth-grader from Casablanca who’s about to take the national high school entrance exam in 2020. She is able to attend a private school and will be allowed to bring her paraprofessional into the national exam with her as an aide. She will be taking adapted exams made just for her from the Ministry of Education. “Chama was very lucky,” Chama’s mom Awatif Idrissi said proudly. “She was the first student in Casablanca to take the national exam with her paraprofessional to pass her 6th grade.”
More schools are responding positively towards autistic students. Khalil Gibran School is a private school in Rabat that has been accepting children with disabilities long before the inclusive education program was initiated. According to school director Fouad Lyoubi, the school now has one autistic student in high school, two in middle school, and five in primary school. For each autistic student, the school fills out a needs assessment form and applies to the Ministry of Education for an adapted exam tailored to each student’s needs.
“We spend more money on education than in the army. Morocco is one of the very few states that invest a lot of money in education. A country like this should have institutions in major cities for autistic students,” Lyoubi said.
While the new law is in place, it is still not strongly enforced. Families say that schools and associations lack trained professionals to aid each autistic child, therefore many are unable to join associations, which means that they can’t get access to any governmental help.
“We have over 150 families on the waitlist because we don’t have enough for so many kids. What government gives is good, but it’s never enough,” said Bensalah about her association Miroir.
Douae Darif, a five-year-old autistic girl living in Fez, is one of the families on that waitlist. Her autism symptoms don’t allow her to attend a mainstream school yet. Her mother Loubna said that she went to many associations, but they were too expensive for her, so she couldn’t get any help from them. Right now, she’s in a free association called Almirat which trains autistic children how to behave and speak. When Doua’s ready, she will be attending school.
The chief of education for handicapped children in Morocco’s Ministry of Education, Anouar Boukili, explained that the Ministry is trying to make the promises of the law real. Its main tasks are to change the mentality of society in its view of autism, train teachers, inspectors and directors of schools, and inform parents and associations of the available resources. In late 2019, the Ministry planned to launch an Information Model for School Directors, Teachers, and Parents and Families to train them on autism. Morocco’s Parliament approved a total of $4.5 million in funding for the inclusive education program in 2020.
With all efforts made by the government and autism organizations, Meryem Ouahmane, the psychologist, hopes that Moroccan society is turning more inclusive for autistic individuals. “Autism is not a problem to accept. It’s something normal like having different colors of hair. Society needs to normalize it.”
Samira Essadik of Connect Institute contributed reporting to this article.
Shi researched autism and education in Morocco through SIT Study Abroad in fall 2019.