Alex Lovedale pauses, his face a picture of concentration. “Well my heart skipped a beat, did a little flip and then soared like an eagle in the sky,” he finally says. He’s not talking about falling in love, receiving some good news or writing a poem (though he has done that). The 22-year-old is simply describing how he felt when he saw someone wearing a T-shirt with his painting printed on it. It’s a big deal when an amateur artist’s design is chosen by a clothing giant to print on its range. It’s an even bigger deal when the company is Giordano and the artist is an autistic student from the Dubai-based Mawaheb (talent, in Arabic) from Beautiful People, an exclusive art studio that teaches life skills to adults with special needs.

“They bought it because they liked it, and not because it was designed by a special needs person,” says Alex. “It made me very proud when I saw people wearing it in the malls.”

In fact, Alex doesn’t let the special needs tag bother him at all. That’s because neither he, nor the 20 other students at the studio have even the slightest doubt that they are artists. In fact, Alex always introduces himself as “An artist from Mawaheb.” Pause. Then: “I have autism.”

Mawaheb’s director Wemmy De Maaker knew children with special needs didn’t need to be defined by it, and that she, along with a handful of skilled volunteers, could unleash the talent in all of them. So, having worked with special needs people for more than 15 years in her native Holland, she decided to open up the studio after moving here with her husband and two children.

“When I realised that there was no school for special needs people above the age of 18, I decided to fill that need,” she says simply. Wemmy had worked with Robert Wolff, director of the Holland-based Beautiful People, a social concept that has been helping artists with intellectual disabilities and psychological problems for more that 15 years. So together with Robert, she organised a campaign in 2009 with an exhibition of 40 artworks by special needs people from The Netherlands, Switzerland and the UAE to raise awareness of their creative talents. The event was a huge success, and the first step towards creating Mawaheb a year later.

Located in the historic Bastakiya area of Dubai, Mawaheb seeks not just to develop artistic talents of its students, but also enhance their confidence and make them independent by teaching them life skills – such as making choices while ordering food at a restaurant, checking in at the airport, using public transport, and making purchases at a grocery or large stores.

“We initially started with four students; now there are 21,” she says. Admissions are facilitated mostly by word of mouth, and parents bring in their adult children to be taught painting, mosaic art, photography, yoga, and dance.

The school is non-profit, funded by corporate sponsors as well as sales of paintings and other items such as mugs made by the artists and their teachers. The students pay an annual fee of Dh15,000 for attending the 8.30am to 3.30pm, five-days-a-week classes. Those who cannot afford the fees are helped to find sponsors.

The students at Mawaheb begin their day with exercise, usually yoga. “It really gets them up and going, putting them in a very positive state of mind,” explains Gulshan Kavarana, one of the art teachers.

Alex agrees. “Before coming here I was all hyper and couldn’t concentrate on anything. Now I am more focused, and able to keep calm.” They also have Bollywood dancing and zumba classes twice a week and meditation classes to calm down the hyperactive.

On Sundays the students draw and sketch with volunteer Mike Arnols, an architect and painter; they learn painting on Mondays with a volunteer artist; then mosaic making on Tuesdays with another volunteer, Stephanie; Wednesdays are for craft work and Thursdays for pottery.

The major focus is on art. “Until I joined Mawaheb, I had not painted anything,” says Alex, who joined in 2011. “But now I’ve started to enjoy art and look forward to creating it.” Gulshan, one of the facilitators at the centre, says Alex is exceptionally talented. “He is extremely confident and has an eye for art,” she says.

They regularly hold art exhibitions to showcase the students’ works – last November an exhibition titled Dubai Skyline, capturing different elements of the city, was held at the Showcase Gallery in Dubai, and attracted scores of people.

Rekha, 58, the newest and oldest member, reels off the names of the buildings with a bit of prompting: “Burj Khalifa, Emirates Towers, Clock Tower...” She moved to Dubai from Mumbai after her mother passed away. She now lives with her brother and has started attending school for the first time in her life. “I love Dubai and Mawaheb,” the autistic student giggles. “I don’t want to go back!”.

It’s obvious that art gets them going. Kiera, 22, from the US, is autistic and withdrawn most of the time. Until she’s prodded into talking of her art. Her face then becomes very animated as she describes what she painted – the Burj Khalifa. “It’s the tallest building. I love it,” she says.

Another student who loves buildings and art is Abdullah, 21, an Emirati. Blessed with a knack for breaking down complex architectural drawings into simple terms, he now earns a reasonable amount of money every month by sketching 2D architectural drawings for architects.

For the exhibition, Abdullah drew the outline of the Burj Khalifa and filled it in with pictures of workers – “because they are the ones who helped build it,” he says.

A late entrant to this vibrant group is Leila Murjian, 50, who says she painted the Emirates Towers and another called Seven stars on the Burj Al Arab “where I have put in all the birds and animals and butterflies”.

Despite their different levels of expertise, the students are uniformly confident. Some of them have even become financially independent after training at Mawaheb. “This is our way of integrating them into society,” explains Gulshan. “We don’t treat them as children, but as adults.”

She and the other volunteers take every opportunity to teach the students about everyday life. “Our students get to interact with a lot of tourists who walk into the Bastakiya and Mawaheb every day; it’s a great opportunity for impromptu history and geography classes without them even knowing it,” says Gulshan. “They learn about languages, places and customs from them.”

Zaid, 31, who is autistic, says coming to Mawaheb has changed him a lot. “It has made me more confident, and I order on my own when I go to restaurants instead of waiting for others to order for me,” he smiles. “I have learnt to speak up for myself. I learnt to shave in a month before going to Holland to participate in an art exhibition. I learnt to do my boarding and checking in by myself. Now I even go to the movies on my own!”

As a confidence builder, Mawaheb seems to have done the impossible – make its special needs students not only independent to an extent, but able and willing to help others cope, too.

None of them now think of special needs as a disadvantage. “People think art is only for adults and mainstream people. We are adults and special needs, and art is for us too,” says Alex. “I want to be a jewellery designer, have my own company, sing and play football!”

All of them look at him, smile and nod. They know it is possible, and one day he will.