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Autism center signs deal with Arab Emirates

SOUTHBOROUGH -- A leading autism center in Massachusetts will manage a $100 million, decadelong effort to bring cutting-edge research and treatment of children to the United Arab Emirates, the center announced yesterday. The New England Center for Children signed the deal last week with officials in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, to start a program for children with the developmental disorder that affects social and communication skills.

The center will send 50 to 60 employees over the next few years -- six are scheduled to go by December -- to start the operation and train 30 to 40 instructors from Abu Dhabi. The Health Authority- Abu Dhabi and the New England Center will join to build the new center and provide housing for New England Center employees in Abu Dhabi.

In five years, Vincent Strully Jr., the center's founder and chief executive, said he hopes to have 100 employees at the New England Center for Children of Abu Dhabi to help 48 students.

The center spends about $7 million a year for a preschool with 48 students in Southborough. It has more than 700 employees, who care for about 350 students between 18 months and 22 years old.

While attention is focused on genetic research that could eventually lead to a cure, the center focuses on helping children live with autism, Strully said.

"Kids with autism can learn, and they can learn from a series of very sophisticated, applied educational programs," he said.

Strully announced the United Arab Emirates plan to hundreds of employees in the center's gymnasium yesterday, offering a $500 monthly food stipend, a health club membership, a bonus, and rent-free housing to those willing to live for one to two years in the desert city.

Officials in Abu Dhabi could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Daniel Gould, who will be running the program in Abu Dhabi, said he already has enough interested employees to fill the first classroom.

"It will show that the high quality of services we provide can be replicated in other places where those services don't already exist," he said.

However, Gould added, the program cannot be offered without substantial financial support. The United Arab Emirates, located on the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Oman, is about the size of Maine and is one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Michael McSweeney, 27, of Canton, is one of about 20 employees that the center sent to work with an autistic student in the United Arab Emirates in the past decade.

He said that assimilating into that particular part of the Middle East is easier than people would expect.

"They think certain things when they think about the Middle East, but it's really modernized," McSweeney said.

Some employees said that while they were interested in moving to Abu Dhabi, they had some concerns about living in the Middle East, given the current political and security situation.

"The nature of the media in this country and the naiveté on our part sometimes leads us to some anxiety," said Hannorah Thurman, 25, of Westborough.

But, she added, it's important to broaden autism services across the world, because that's the only real hope of finding the disorder's cause and a cure.

"I'd be just as happy to stay and work with the kids here," she said. "This is my passion, so wherever I do it would be good."

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