From childhood Sarah Dababnah, PhD, MPH, MSW, As an associate professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work (UMSSW) noted that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are often treated differently from others. Little did she know that she would later receive a prestigious Fulbright US scholarship award and travel to Egypt to investigate such differences.
As a Jordanian-American teenage girl, Dababnah noted that this was the experience of the son of a Jordanian-American family friend who was born with an intellectual difference.
“We were very close,” she said of her childhood friend. “I was a little adjusted to the differences in the way services look for people who really have any kind of disability, intellectual disability, autism, or whatever. I always kept in mind that not all services in the US are perfect or great or anything. I realized early on that there were huge differences in services, access to services, people’s view of disabilities and the way families receive support. “
Dababnah has received a Fulbright US Scholar Award in Cairo, Egypt, where she will continue her research into methods of supporting children with autism and other developmental disorders for nine months. She is leaving at the end of August.
The trip has been a long time coming. She applied for the scholarship for the first time in September 2019. “And then of course everything was canceled in March of last year, the world collapsed.”
No Fulbright scholarships have been awarded. As September 2020 rolled around, she reapplied despite not knowing if the novel coronavirus would still wreak havoc, just in case the program returned.
Earlier this summer she received the email she had been waiting for: Her grant application “Interdisciplinary, Family-Centered Approaches to Supporting Young Children with Autism and Other Developmental Disorders” was accepted. She will work with the Faculty of Psychology at the American University in Cairo.
“I was so excited and also a little overwhelmed” because I had to travel during a pandemic, said Dababnah, who has been teaching at UMSSW for seven years.
“I am so proud of Dr. Dababnah, ”said UMSSW Dean Judy L. Postmus, PhD, MSW. “Your hard work in researching and teaching children with disabilities has had a tremendous impact on our students, the social work profession and families. The knowledge that she brings with her from this Fulbright scholarship holder will only intensify this effect. “
Paul Sacco, PhD, MSW, Deputy Dean for Research and Associate Professor repeated this opinion.
“I am pleased that Dr. Dababnah is a Fulbright Fellow going to Egypt, ”Sacco said. “Your work on contextually adapted family interventions for autism embodies our university’s best commitment to knowledge building that is both local and global. Her family-centered approach, whether in Baltimore or Cairo, means working with families and stakeholders so that interventions reflect the priorities, resources and cultural values of those receiving services. “
Overall, Dababnah’s research is focused on developing interventions and support for families of young children with autism and other developmental disparities, particularly those who live in underserved communities in the United States or in resource-poor environments around the world, given the significant racial, ethnic, socio-economic, and socioeconomic issues geographical differences in access to evidence-based autism services, she said.
For example, Dababnah explained, black children are diagnosed with autism much later in the United States than their white peers, meaning they often lack access to early intervention services, which can be of great benefit throughout their lives. Dababnah is currently co-leading the research Charina C. Reyes, MD, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), in close collaboration with Wendy Shaia, EdD, MSW, Clinical Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Social Work Community Outreach Service at UMSSW, and Deborah G. Badawi, MD, Assistant Professor, UMSOM, evaluating a program in Baltimore for parents of black children awaiting an autism assessment. The research is funded by the UMB’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Research.
The peer-to-peer program is run by parents of older black children with autism in the local community.
“I’ve worked a lot in Baltimore to fill that void, but also to develop interventions and services that are more culturally and contextually relevant,” said Dababnah. “What I suggested for the Fulbright Prize in Egypt was to really expand this work worldwide. In Egypt it was a really good opportunity, with some of the partners I have there through the World Health Organization and other partners, to really reach a lot of families who have almost no access to autism services and other services for children with developmental disabilities. “
In Egypt, she will be evaluating a program called the Caregivers Skills Training (CST) Program for Familys of Children with Developmental Disorders or Delays. Working with disability experts and stakeholders, the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed CST as a cost-effective way to address bottlenecks and other barriers to the development of disability services around the world.
Together with Canadian and American colleagues, Dababnah supported the CST distance training of Egyptian providers in autumn 2020. While WHO developed CST specifically for culturally, linguistically diverse or underserved communities, it has not been officially evaluated in Arabic, nor in the Middle East and North Africa, Dababnah said. Egypt is an ideal place to customize and field test CST in Arabic as it shares many cultural and sociopolitical characteristics with other countries in the region, thereby expanding the potential scope of the results of this research.
“I was able to do a lot of work (in Cairo) remotely, but when I’m there in person it’s a lot easier to get things done,” she said. “Lots of people don’t have access to Zoom or remote connections.”
Working with the faculty of the American University in Cairo and other staff, Dababnah will provide face-to-face advice on the CST program in Egypt, including monitoring and evaluating plans to analyze, interpret and disseminate data and related outcomes. She will also teach a course and provide professional training for students and providers interested in developing skills for working with people with developmental disabilities and their families.
According to Dababnah’s scholarship application, research in the Palestine region has found that families raising children with autism feel isolated, ashamed, and stressed out. The children were diagnosed far too late to access early interventions for communication and challenging behavior. In addition, their interviews with local providers indicated that they felt unprepared to address the needs of children with autism. Both providers and parents desperately wanted access to more knowledge about autism and relevant interventions.
“A small group of autism research and media suggest that Egypt faces similar challenges,” Dababnah wrote in her application.
As a Fulbright Fellow, Dababnah will share knowledge and foster meaningful connections between communities in the United States and Egypt. Fulbrighters conduct cutting-edge research and expand their professional network, continue research collaborations that have often started abroad and lay the foundation for future partnerships between institutions. Upon their return to their institutions, laboratories, and classrooms in the United States, they share their stories and often become active supporters of international exchange, inviting foreign scholars to campus and encouraging colleagues and students to go abroad. As Fulbright Scholar alumni, you will join a network of thousands of respected scholars, many of whom are leaders in their fields. Fulbright alumni include 60 Nobel Prize winners, 88 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 39 who have served as heads of state or government.
The Fulbright Program is the flagship of the US government’s international educational exchange program and is supported by the people of the United States and partner countries around the world. Since 1946, the Fulbright program has offered more than 400,000 participants from over 160 countries the opportunity to study, teach and research, exchange ideas and help resolve common international concerns. The primary source of funding for the Fulbright program is an annual US Congress grant to the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations abroad and in the United States also provide direct and indirect assistance.
“I’ve learned a lot from families here in Baltimore and how we can improve our services,” said Dababnah. “Hopefully I can bring this information to Egypt and help better support their providers there. And I’m sure I’ll learn a lot from the way they provide services in Egypt and bring them back here, so I hope it will be great for both sides. “
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