Stigma towards autism exists in every culture. However, this stigma is often even higher in migrant communities, making it harder to receive proper treatment.
In the Somali community, there is no word for autism. It is a concept that is neither understood nor accepted. For many, people merely fall into the category of “normal,” or they don’t.
This was the culture in which Nura Aabe grew up. Aabe immigrated to the United Kingdom when she was 8 years old to escape the civil war in her home country. Surrounded by family and friends, Aabe was thrilled when she had her first son, Zaki. However, when Zaki began displaying unusual behaviors at the age of one and a half, Aabe was at a loss. Neither she nor her family members were sure what to do. Given Zaki’s healthy appearance, many urged her that he was no different than other children. Nonetheless, Zaki received an autism diagnosis at the age of two. However, it was not until he was seven that he began to receive proper support.
This is a common experience for members of the Somali community, who carry a different outlook to child development. For those like Aabe who have immigrated to countries in Europe or the United States, there is often a disconnect between health professionals and family members of affected individuals. Existing language, cultural and community barriers prevent individuals from getting the help and support that they need. After experiencing these barriers for herself, Aabe decided to make a change.
Through getting involved in finding support for her son, Aabe realized that she was not alone. After educating herself and getting more involved in the autism community, Aabe founded the organization Autism Independence. This organization is dedicated to raising awareness of autism and supporting affected ethnic minorities. According to research, migrant communities seem to be more prone to developing autism than other populations. This makes the work that Aabe does vital for countless individuals.
One of the main issues that Aabe works towards is eliminating the stigma and increasing visibility of autistic individuals in the Somali community. To do this, she has created support networks for families in her area. She has also published papers, given talks, and shares her story as much as possible to make sure that no one else feels isolated like she once did.
Her son, once nonverbal, now speaks. He takes classes and travels to them on his own. None of this could have been accomplished had Aabe not been brave enough to seek help for Zaki when he was young. Now, Aabe is able to appreciate her son’s differences. She has also begun to advocate for a redefinition of “normal,” saying: “Who is normal? We’re all different – I have quite odd behaviour sometimes. And I don’t see myself as different. I see myself as a powerful woman and that’s what we need to recognise as human beings.”
Overall, the world needs more strong voices like Aabe’s to spread the message that autism is not something to be ashamed of. By becoming an advocate for autism and for ethnic minorities, Aabe has touched the lives of many. Nura Aabe is not just a hero not in her own community, but for migrant families everywhere. Through her continued work, she is actively creating a better world for her son and many others.