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Moroccan Authorities Praise Student with Autism on Earning a Doctorate

Morocco’s minister of education and Mohammed V University of Rabat have hailed Karim Benabdeslam as the first Moroccan student with autism to obtain a doctorate in the kingdom.

Benabdeslam, who is 31, was recently awarded a Ph.D. by the university’s Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences for research in comparative religion. He received a grade of Very Honorable with a recommendation to publish his thesis, “The Mission of Jesus, Peace Be Upon Him, Through the Gospels and the Qur’an.”

The president of the university, Mohamed Rhachi, described Benabdeslam on Twitter as “a paradigm of persistence and patience” and added: “It is a moment that makes the eyes shed tears and spreads a feeling of joy in the heart.”

Benabdeslam’s father said his son was 3 years old when his family discovered that he had autism.

“We confronted great difficulties in the beginning, due to society’s lack of acceptance of this group of children,” Mohamed Benabdeslam said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

Little was known about autism in Morocco at the time, he said, and many schools refused to register his child. The exception was an institution whose director, a Belgian citizen, nurtured Karim until the third grade of primary school.

‘People of Determination’

“Autism” covers a wide range of conditions collectively known as autism spectrum disorders. The World Health Organisation estimates that one child in 160 worldwide has an autism spectrum disorder. According to the WHO, people with autism are often subject to stigma, discrimination and human-rights violations.

“We confronted great difficulties in the beginning, due to society’s lack of acceptance of this group of children.”

Father of Karim Benabdeslam

Karim Benabdeslam experienced that stigma.

“Some of the students who studied with me, in middle and high school, were bullying me. Not only did they not accept me among them, but they showed some contempt and abasement,” he told Al-Fanar Media.

But, he said, “it didn’t affect me in any way. I continued to study, and I saw the problem in their attitude, not mine. We are people of determination, and we do not have special needs.”

Disability should be a motive, not an impediment, Karim Benabdeslam said. Both he and his father stressed the importance of hard work as one way of confronting autism.

Mohamed Benabdeslam praised his son’s perseverance to earn a Ph.D. “This is a model for all parents and families who have children with autism that success is possible through work.”

Karim said he felt “an indescribable gaiety” when he obtained his doctorate, but added: “It is the fruit of patience, effort, hard work, and diligence.”

He said he was grateful for the support of his parents throughout his education. His father was in constant contact with professors at all stages, in order to provide him with the appropriate atmosphere for research. “The professors spared no effort in guiding me to continue my study path normally,” he added.

Supervisor’s Hesitation

Believing that all religions and Sharia aimed to “instill the values of coexistence, love and peace among their followers,” Karim chose to specialize in comparative religion. He enrolled for a master’s degree at the Dar El Hadith El Hassania Institute, in Rabat, which is affiliated with Al Qarawiyyeen University, in Fez.

His doctoral research supervisor at Mohamed V University, Karima Bouamri, admits she felt hesitant before agreeing to take up the “challenge”.

In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Bouamri, who is the coordinator of the Ph.D. unit in religion, described Karim Benabdeslam is a diligent student and attributed his success in part to his regular attendance and punctuality.

Noting that his father accompanied him to many meetings, she said his family had been a model of persistence, support and encouragement. “All parents who have autistic children should emulate this experience,” she added.

“The professors spared no effort in guiding me to continue my study path normally.”

Karim Benabdeslam
On his progress toward earning a Ph.D

Bouamri said Karim’s determination to overcome difficulties enabled him to communicate with his professors with independence and bravery. He obtained his Ph.D. “with merit and not pity, especially as he is an extraordinary student who has a strong will, ambition, and many talents,” she said.

Art and Music

Karim Benabdeslam grew up in a family that loves art and culture. According to the father, his love of the Arabic language and the Holy Qur’an, combined with traditional Moroccan and Andalusian music, were behind his decision to use art and music as a means of introducing people to autism.

Karim is continuing his studies at the National Institute of Music and Choreography in Rabat, where the Moroccan artist Nouman Lahlou helped to produce a video song in support of children with autism.

After local media carried news of his Ph.D., the Moroccan Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Abdullatif Miraoui, received Benabdeslam and other creative students, as part of a “celebration of Moroccan genius and excellence.” The minister said Karim had “challenged all stereotypes” in managing to obtain a Ph.D.

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While no detailed official statistics are available, the Association to Overcome Autism in Morocco “Vaincre l’autisme” estimates that there are more than 680,000 people with autism in the country and about 12,800 children are born with autism each year.

The association has called on the government to develop a national plan in health and education for children with autism. The lack of services in public schools leads families to seek the assistance of specialised associations for treatment and education, which are very expensive, it says.

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