Autism Speaks Brings Early Intervention to Saudi Arabia

Posted by Lauren Elder, PhD, Autism Speaks assistant director of dissemination science. This month, Dr. Elder and Autism Speaks Senior Vice President for Scientific Affairs Andy Shih, PhD, traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to help facilitate the historic, first early intervention training program in the Arab region.

I just returned from traveling to Saudi Arabia for the first Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) training in Saudi Arabia. What a historic and exciting event.

This four-day training came about through our Global Autism Public Health (GAPH) initiative and took place at the Center for Autism Research of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Centre, in Riyadh. Jamie Winter, PhD, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and Katie Wallace, MSW, of the University of California, Davis, MIND Institute, led the training. 

The first day, Jamie and Katie provided an introduction to ESDM for about 40 parents and professionals. They followed this with three days of intensive training for nine of the autism center’s staff. The staff was enthusiastic about helping families with this early intervention model. They also want to develop a regional training center open to neighbor countries. The ESDM training represented an important first step for the center to become a regional model of evidence-based autism services.

Two families participated in the intensive training, so that Jamie and Katie could provide live coaching as the staff members practiced their skills. Jamie and Katie delivered their training in English. At the same time, the staff members had to deliver the intervention in Arabic. That certainly increased the challenge! We discussed and resolved translation issues as they came up. We also worked together as a team to personalize a program for each child.

It was wonderful to see their progress from day to day. During one of the sessions, one of the children said her very first word! Her father was so proud he told us he’s going to throw a party for her.

I interviewed one the trainees, Ashwaq Alzamel, about her experiences. She is from Saudi Arabia and has a master’s degree in early childhood education from the University of California, San Diego, as well as her teaching credentials. Here is our exchange:

How many children do you see each week, Ashwaq? I see at least three to four children each week, two for intervention and several for diagnosis.

What were you looking forward to in this training? I was really looking forward to it because I knew it was play-based. I knew that it used positive reinforcement and that it’s very relationship-based. I love that about it. It’s more natural. It really focuses on building that relationship between the therapist and the child, and also the family.

Did it meet your expectations? Yes, very much

What’s something new that you learned? All of it was new!

Do you think you’ll use the ESDM in your work? Of course!

Would you recommend this training to others in your region? Of course, a hundred percent yes. I want to be an ESDM trainer! I think it’s amazing.

What did you like best? I love that it was really hands on. The trainer helped us get the system. She gave us great feedback. She really worked hard to make us understand how the data collection goes and how to incorporate the objectives. She was always positive, really motivating. I loved the video examples.

Jamie, Katie and I really enjoyed our time in Saudi Arabia and had a great time working with the team there. They were not only great co-workers, they were wonderful hosts and took us out for memorable meals. I even tasted camel! Below are some of our memorable photos from the trip.








Editor’s note: Autism Speaks GAPH program is expanding the reach of autism services and fostering autism research around the world. To learn more, see these related blog posts:

Investing in Research for Today’s Families

Bangladesh Pioneers Autism Public Health in South Asia

Inclusion into Life in Peru

Spouse of UN Secretary-General Promotes GAPH in Serbia

Eliminating Racial & Ethnic Differences in Autism Diagnosis

‘I’ Is for International


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Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks has grown into one of the world's leading autism science and advocacy organizations. Visit for more information.
Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks has grown into one of the world's leading autism science and advocacy organizations. Visit for more information.

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