‘There’s no plan B’: Lebanon’s worsening financial crisis forces the closure of the country's only autism school
The 1 2 3 Autism School was probably opened at the wrong time, its founder, Saritta Trad, admits. Trad opened the school in September 2019, in part to provide a school for her own autistic son – Ricky – in her home country of Lebanon.
One month later, the October Revolution started. Lebanon’s streets were filled with millions of protesters demanding an end to the corrupt governance which had plagued the country for so long. The financial crisis soon followed, and those who still had the money in the bank saw their savings locked away in far-off vaults.
Still, the school's doors did not shut. Though there are other centres that provide individual instruction for children with autism in Lebanon, this was the first fully-fledged school where autistic children could learn alongside kids just like them.
Soon parents flocked to the centre, uprooting their lives and moving from the northern city of Tripoli, from Iraq and Saudi Arabia to Beirut, where the school was located.
The school stayed open, even through the multiple COVID-19 lockdowns – in defiance of the country’s lockdown procedures.
Now, the school seems to have finally reached the end of its rope, announcing that it will be permanently closing in the coming weeks.
"While these myriad obstacles are certainly not unique to the autism school, the shutting of the centre affects the most vulnerable of the country’s residents"
Hamstrung by the financial crisis
Despite surviving a revolution and a pandemic, the centre could not resist the downward spiral of Lebanon’s economic collapse.
Since the fall of 2019, Lebanon’s national currency has lost over 90 percent of its value. Though the official exchange rate is still fixed at the rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar, in order to obtain dollars, dollars are actually being sold for around 18,000 on the black market.
The result has been mass hyperinflation as most Lebanese take their salaries at the official rate, but have to pay for goods priced based on black-market exchange rates.
The autism centre takes its tuition at the official rate of 1,500 lira to the dollar but has to pay its US-based parent organisation in dollars. Its funds are stuck in Lebanese banks, where withdrawals at the official rate are not allowed.
To transfer money abroad then, it would have to secure access to dollars, something prohibitively expensive given that its revenue is priced at an exchange rate 12 times less than the actual market value of US dollars.
On top of the accounting difficulties imposed on the school by Lebanon’s financial crisis, the school is forced to find fuel on the black market to keep the power running throughout the day. State power in Lebanon tops out at about 3 hours a day in most areas, forcing residents to rely on private generators for the majority of their electricity.
The monthly bill for the school’s generator alone is about 20 million lira, or about $13,330 at the exchange rate at which the school is taking its tuition.
Despite the costs, Trad tried her best to keep the school open as long as she could but felt that “doors were shutting in her face” at every turn.
“When we told the families and staff we were going to close, they were devastated,” she added.
While these myriad obstacles are certainly not unique to the autism school, the shutting of the centre affects the most vulnerable of the country’s residents. For many families, there is no other option for their children besides the 1 2 3 Autism School.
“There is no plan B, I am thinking of leaving Lebanon if I can,” Nooha Badwi, whose 12-year old son, Riwaq, attends the school.
The space is unique in that it not only specifically caters to the children’s special needs, but also allows them to socialise with other autistic children.
“My child keeps telling me that he misses school. He lists the names of his friends and pretends to say hello to them,” Jihan Succor, one of the students’ parents, told The New Arab. She said that her child still tries to replicate the activities they do in school since classes stopped three weeks ago.
Other parents also said that they have noticed regression in their children’s behaviours since the classes stopped. As children with autism have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, oftentimes their frustration comes out through tantrums and aggressive behaviour.
Kids with autism are hypersensitive to changes to their environments and need routines to structure their lives. However, life in Lebanon is anything but routine.
Electricity outages, fuel shortages and rapidly rising prices mean daily life in Lebanon is a series of constant interruptions. The light switches that worked yesterday do not today and tomorrow’s plans become impossible with an empty gas tank and no open gas stations to replenish it.
For autistic children, these interruptions erode the structure that their caregivers worked so hard to create. The impossibility of performing their daily activities, such as watching a movie, and the physical discomfort which comes from sitting in hot, dark apartments, can create severe distress for these children.
"Now, with the centre shut, parents have been transformed into 24/7 caregivers — putting immense pressure on them to provide constant stimulation for their children and soothe increasingly frequent tantrums"
Home is even more central to autistic children, as they have little sense of independence and require a lot of supervision. Unlike other children, they cannot just go outside and play with their friends when the electricity is out. Most of their daily routine is tied to the home, and when available, school.
Maria, Fadi Assaf’s daughter, uses her iPad for speech therapy and entertainment throughout the day. “But now how do I charge it without any electricity?” he asks, exasperated.
To provide some sense of normalcy for their children, parents have gone to extraordinary measures. When outages became more frequent, parents bought costly Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) units to power devices even in the midst of blackouts. When electricity became so sparse that the UPSs did not have enough time to charge, they started looking for solar panels.
This is part of “Lebanese resilience” Nadine Krikorian, the programme director, explains, pointing to the ability of Lebanon’s residents to adapt to almost any challenge. Conditions necessitate this adaptation, as the country’s economic decline means basic services can no longer be taken for granted and what was expected yesterday becomes tomorrow’s luxury.
Still, with each adaptation, compromise and stopgap, families – especially those with special needs children – feel more and more exhausted.
“As much as we try to help the kids, it’s not enough and we get no help,” Badwil said. She showed her forearms, which bore scratches, the result of a tantrum her daughter had a few days before.
Before, at least six hours of the children’s days had been taken up by school at the centre, giving parents a bit of room to breathe and an opportunity to relax. Now, with the centre shut, parents have been transformed into 24/7 caregivers — putting immense pressure on them to provide constant stimulation for their children and soothe increasingly frequent tantrums.
“We’re crashing; we’re exhausted. Each day we can only think about how to find fuel, about how to supply our daily needs,” she added.
Even Lebanese resilience has a limit, however. Asked about what the future holds for his family, Maria’s father, Assaf, said he cannot even begin to think about what comes next.
“We are trying not to think about it,” he said. “If we think about the situation, we’ll need anti-depressants ourselves.”
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou