RIYADH: The drive of one Saudi teenager to become a paleontologist has proven that children with autism can achieve amazing things if they set their minds to them.
Fares Al-Shaikh was diagnosed with autism when he was just three years old, but despite this, over the years he developed a deep interest in and love for dinosaurs. He can talk about more than 600 species of the now-extinct prehistoric reptiles, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of paleontology — from the evolution of dinosaurs and their habits and behaviors, to the ages in which they lived and the locations where they were discovered.
The 13-year-old told Arab News: “I like reptiles and I have a vast collection of dinosaur models, including modern reptiles like snakes, lizards, and alligators as well as extinct reptiles such dinosaurs like torosaurus.”
His interest in anatomy started to grow as he linked the forms of modern animals with their dinosaur ancestors, and he even envisages how they might look in the future. He started to present his own theories about them and search for any information that supports or helps him to prove them.
Fares’s father, Ahmed Al-Shaikh, told Arab News: “We noticed that Fares loves animals so we tried to buy him all the pets that we could, and we took him to pet stores whenever we (could) but with time, we noticed that he loves reptiles.”
Origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, is another skill that Fares possesses. He can do it quickly and enjoys making dinosaur models out of paper and clay.
Fares speaks English fluently but was not always the most talkative boy. His parents assumed he might have a speech delay when he was three years old, but when he was diagnosed with autism they had no idea how to handle the condition.
He father explained: “We took him to several pediatric specialists, and they conducted clinical examinations. They confirmed the safety of his organs and that he was healthy in speech, hearing, and vision, but there was a problem with speech.
“After consulting, a speech therapist informed us that he has autism, and stated that we should accept the fact that our son will grow up, but his mind will remain like the mind of (a child).”
Fares started speaking at the age of four after a long struggle to help him become verbal and learn oral speaking skills. His family discovered that, due to the shows he frequently watches on his iPad, he spoke more English than Arabic, so they decided to communicate with him in that language while still using Arabic when necessary.
His family noticed that his visual perception was strong and they tried their best to provide models of dinosaurs, books and videos to help satisfy his curiosity. Every time he saw a new type or species of dinosaur, he searched for more information about it.
“We supported him in what he loved, no matter what it cost us. Even if it was not his interest in the future, we will continue to support him,” his father added.
Fares aspires to become a paleontologist and discover dinosaur fossils in Saudi Arabia, and even hopes to run a museum devoted to them.
He was honored for his excellence by several official bodies in the Eastern region, including the Sheikh Mohammed Al-Jabr Institute for Autism and the Saudi Association for Special Education.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Fares won the Academic Center for Consultation and Institutional Development’s Community Prevention Ambassador Award in Sharjah for his awareness video, titled “Implementation of the Dinosaur Park,” which he shared on social media and with friends and family.
In his project, Fares created a lego city depicting dinosaurs and humans, and commented on the importance of following guidelines and staying at home to practice our hobbies or learn new things in order to preserve the community’s safety during the pandemic — so that we do not become extinct like dinosaurs.
Speaking about his son’s social media accounts, Ahmed said: “The purpose of Fares’s social media presence is to give parents of autistic children hope that their children can adapt and become valuable members of society and that there are actual cases of autistic children who have destroyed the idea that they are powerless.”