Saudi Arabia: Khalid Speaks Out on Autism

It is a special honor for American Bedu to interview Khalid.  Khalid is a young Saudi man who I look upon as one of my “Saudi sons.”  He’s been in the United States for several years while he obtains his advanced degree.  Soon he will be returning to his home in Saudi Arabia.  But for right now, he’s agreed to answer some questions and speak very candidly about some of the challenges faced in Saudi society.



To begin with Khalid, thanks for agreeing to this interview and allowing me to ask you some candid questions.  I’d like to start with a little bit of information about yourself.  What part of the Kingdom are you from?  How many siblings do you have?


It is my pleasure to be interviewed on American Bedu. I was born and raised in Jubail Industrial City on the Eastern coast of Saudi Arabia in 1989. I have one brother and two sisters.


How would you describe your upbringing?  Do you think you were raised in a traditional or non-traditional environment?


I was raised in a non-traditional environment since I brought up in Jubail away from the majority of my relatives who live in “Alhasa”.


I understand that one of your sister’s has autism.  At what age was she diagnosed with autism?  How old is she now?  How severe is her autism?   


She was diagnosed with Autism when she was six. She is 21 now and she is the youngest member of my family. Her autism category was classified as “Severe” which is the third most severe level out of four levels of autism.


When did you understand what autism is and how has your sister’s autism affected your life?


I learned about autism when I was ten; my sister is only 18 months younger than me so I did not know much about what was going on when she was diagnosed with autism. My sister’s autism affected my whole family’s life in many different ways. First, my sister does not talk so she can’t communicate with us or with anyone, which gives us a difficulty understanding what’s on her mind. Second, she has super hyperactivity, which is one of autism’s symptoms so every time we go out she would run away from us and scream loudly and even take food away from people’s hands!. Which means, every time we wanted to go out there must be one or two holding her hands to make sure she won’t run away. Third, she is not aware of the consequences of many dangerous things, which is another symptom of autism. For example she would take scissors and cut electronic cables or her hair or she would run on the street without realizing that she might be hit by a car so there must be someone watching her all of the time to make sure she won’t hurt herself.


What kind of care and treatment does your sister receive?  What is her prognosis?


My sister has been in an autism care center in Amman, Jordan since she was eight (1999). Over there, she goes to school, learns the basic life needs such as how to write, how to express what she feels, how to use the restroom, how to eat, how to brush her teeth  … etc she also plays some games that encourage children to think and analyze. Moreover, she is taught how to interact with others and she gets some medications that reduce her hyperactivity.



How did Saudi society react to your having a family member with autism?


The majority of people understood what she goes through when we explained to them that she is autistic. Especially when we go out and she runs away and harms other children or takes food away from people’s hands.



What provisions and resources does Saudi Arabia have for individuals with autism?  Do you think there is a good understanding of autism among Saudis?


I honestly don’t know much of what Saudi Arabia provides to autistics since my sister is in Jordan. However, I have heard and read on the papers many times that handicapped rehab centers don’t have qualified employees to deal with children with special needs. For example, last month a video on youtube showed how two nurses in a handicapped special care center in Afif, 300 miles west of the capital Riyadh were beating and mistreating two of the children in that center. Luckily, the two nurses were fired and sent to trial but it was not the first scandal of this kind I hear about in Saudi Arabia.



You attribute your sister’s autism due to the fact that your parents are first cousins.  Can you explain this some more?


Genetics play a big role in autism, and it has been proven scientifically that relative marriages are one of the main causes of autism.


 How common is it for first cousins to marry?  Is autism one of the most common challenges you’ve observed in Saudi Arabia in marriages among cousins? 


It is not very common for first cousins to marry in my family. In fact, the majority of my relatives are married to their distant relatives. There are more than 12 thousands members of my family that are related to me and we all share the same last name, which is my fourteenth grandfather’s name so many of my relatives are married to someone whom they meet like on the sixth or seventh grandfather. There are many challenges and downsides of marrying cousins, including autism and many other heredity diseases. Such as: hypertension, which I personally have because two of my grandfathers had it, diabetes, anemia and Sickle cell. Personally, seven of my first cousins have a heredity disease because their parents are related to each other. In fact, I have been just told a few days ago that my three-year-old cousin was diagnosed with autism! And my other five-year old cousin was diagnosed with diabetes because three of his grandparents are diabetics.


Are most Saudi families willing to talk about the repercussions of a marriage between cousins?  Why or why not?


Fortunately, people nowadays started to understand the possible circumstances of relative marriages and the Saudi authorities recently requires each couple who wants to get married to have some tests in the hospital to see if there is a probability that their children will get heredity diseases.



       If Saudis are aware that marriages among cousins can lead to birth defects and other health issues, why do such marriages continue?


Mainly due to traditions and most families and mothers prefer to let their son/daughter marry someone related to them because they think he/she will take a better care of him since she is related to him. Plus, it is a tradition in my family not to marry from outside the family. In addition, some families that belong to a well known tribe like mine refuse to let the members of the family marry someone from a family that no one can trace its ancestors and does not belong to one of the well-known tribes in Saudi Arabia, which I think is really backward



How about you?  You are still single now, but what are your thoughts on marriage?  Do you plan to marry?  Would you marry a cousin?  Would you marry a non-Saudi?  Would you marry a non-Muslim? 


I honestly never thought about getting married maybe because I am 22 but I am considering seriously not to marry and to remain single for the rest of my life because, in Saudi Arabia you don’t get the chance to know the girl that you mother suggested to you to be your wife. You are only allowed to see her for a few minutes with the presence of her father before you are asked to make your mind up whether you want to marry her or not. I don’t think this is the way it should be. I think there should be some more time to get to know each other before deciding whether she is the girl or not. There is no way I marry someone neither from my family nor from my tribe. If I meet a non-Saudi girl that I think she will make me happy and she is the one for me and shares many values I have, I would be more than happy to marry her but unfortunately, the Saudi authorities require all Saudi citizens who want to marry a non-Saudi to get a special permission from the Ministry of Interior, which is extremely difficult to obtain especially for younger folks. Again if I find the girl I think she is the one who will make me happy I would marry her no matter what her religion, nationality or race is.



How would you feel if a woman you wanted to marry had parents who were also first cousins?  Would you fear that any of your future children could be at risk?


Most likely I won’t marry her.


What would you like people in Saudi Arabia to know and understand better about autism?


I would like them to know more about autistic children and how hard it is for them to have a communication with others. Also, I want people to know that there are many gifted autistics and some of those who have a mild autism are married, have kids and even have a career so autistics can live an ordinary life too.


What is your advice to other Saudis who may be expected to marry first cousins?


I would recommend them to reconsider their decision because, I am pretty sure they don’t want their children to suffer.



If a Saudi man or woman does not want to marry a first cousin how can he or she back down without damaging family relations?


Personally, I don’t have an answer for this question and honestly this is one of the main reasons why I am thinking about remaining single for the rest of my life. I don’t want to marry someone who is related to me. Plus, I want to marry someone I know well. I have to see her in her ups and downs before we decide to get married. She also has to make sure I am the right husband for her.


Are there any additional comments you’d like to add?

I would like to thank you for interviewing me and giving the opportunity to talk about autism on April which Autism Awareness Month as many people I have met don’t know what autism really is.


Thanks again, Khalid, for agreeing to this interview and allowing me to ask you questions on a topic that many Saudis may not wish to discuss.


You are welcome.



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