Every April, Egypt's great monuments turn blue. This woman's hard work is why.

She started the conversation almost 20 years ago, but now people are really listening.

On April 2, the pyramids of Giza were lit up a beautiful shade of blue. Why?

Photo by David Degner/Getty Images.

The pyramids are often lit up for a number of various holidays and causes. In this case, the bright blue lights shone in honor of Autism Awareness Month — marking a relatively recent recognition of the condition in Egypt.


Thanks to Dr. Dahlia Soliman, founder of the Egyptian Autistic Society, autism is finally being talked about openly there.

For the longest time, autism was considered taboo in Egypt. In some areas, it was even called a curse.

"In the rural areas, due to lack of education, when [people saw] a child/adult spinning or doing any of the stereotypical behavior displayed by an autistic person they [thought] this child is possessed," Solimon told Upworthy.

Soliman set out to change that notion 18 years ago, and as of today, the Egyptian Autistic Society (EAS) has diagnosed thousands of children as being "on the spectrum."

Egyptian children in the Egypt Autistic Society program. Image via Egypt Autistic Society/Facebook, used with permission.

The "spectrum" refers to the wide range of behaviors/symptoms a person can exhibit when they are autistic. Unfortunately, this can also make autism difficult to diagnose, which is why, early on, more than 80% of Soliman's patients had been misdiagnosed prior to coming to her.

"Very few doctors and specialists [had] heard of it. It is not taught in our university curriculums (not even in faculty of medicine)," Soliman explained.

One of the greatest challenges Soliman faced when opening the Egypt Autistic Society was getting approval for the group's name because it included the word "autistic" and officials had no idea what it meant.

EAS' main goal is to provide "early intervention" services that are uniquely tailored to each autistic child and their parents, but keeping a program like it running isn't easy — or cheap.

The younger a child is diagnosed, the more receptive they will be to programs that can help curb behavioral and social issues caused by autism. The hope is that such training will make it easier to "mainstream" autistic children in the Egyptian eduction system.

Image via Egyptian Autistic Society/Facebook, used with permission.

This has been exceedingly difficult, especially during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 when the administration kept changing.

Programs for people with autism are expensive for the average Egyptian family. EAS subsidizes tuition for one-third of its students, but such nonprofit work requires significant help from donors, beyond what grateful parents can give.

However, Soliman's meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been instrumental in raising funds and awareness. Fattah el-Sisi has connected EAS with a number of dignitaries, some of whom have personal connections to autism.

In March 2016, Admiral Mohab Mamish, head of the Suez Canal Authority, publicly declared that his grandson has autism. For a country that not long ago thought autism was possession, that's a huge step forward in reducing the stigma.

Getting Egypt's great monuments lit up in bright blue is, strangely enough, one of the most challenging aspects of Soliman's work to destigmatize autism.

"It is actually a huge hassle!" Soliman wrote in an email. "We have to write official formal letters to each minister or authority in charge of that particular monument. Then hand deliver it to the head of that authority and then nag by phone or in person that it gets put on his desk and he signs it!"

Photo by David Degner/Getty Images.

Despite the hassle, however, she's managed to light up at least one Egyptian landmark every year since 2012.

For Autism Awareness Month in 2016, 21 landmarks, including the pyramids, blazed blue.


While the bureaucracy might be a pain, Soliman says her work with the children makes it all worth it.

Photo via Dahlia Soliman/Facebook, used with permission.

According to her blog, from age 11 on, Soliman knew she wanted to work with children with special needs.

When asked why she loves working with autistic kids, she replied, "I love children in general, but special needs children to me are slightly more special. Each tiny bit of progress is like climbing mount everest and that fulfills me."

Keeping the conversation around autism moving forward in Egypt is of utmost importance.

Photo via Egyptian Autistic Society/Facebook, used with permission.

No matter where you're from, if you've had experience with autism, Soliman and the EAS are encouraging you to share your story using the hashtag #iamthefirststep.

They hope that if more Egyptians see how prevalent autism is around the world, and how manageable it can be, pretty soon the original stigma that once influenced the country to keep people living with autism hidden away will fall away entirely.

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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