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  • I think that autistic child is difficult to manage: Are Ras Al Khamiah’s teachers ready for including students with autism?

I think that autistic child is difficult to manage: Are Ras Al Khamiah’s teachers ready for including students with autism?

After a seminar about autism, delivered to 130 teachers as part of the Ras Al Khaimah Teacher Network professional development events, a group of Emirati teachers requested me to join their table to answer a few questions. Through the help of an interpreter, a stream of questions were posed:

  • Does a child get autism if they spend too much time with technology?
  • Is autism the same as attention deficit hyperactive disorder?
  • How can I teach a student in my class who runs around most of the time?

Talking to these teachers and trying to answer their questions confirmed the importance of the research project Dr. Sarah Benson and I recently completed. Our focus was on mapping teachers’ preparedness to teach and support children on the autism spectrum in Ras Al Khaimah. Like many other countries worldwide, the UAE hopes to create an inclusive education system for all children, including students of determination. Teachers’ knowledge, attitudes, and skills are important in realizing this ambition. Dr. Sarah and I were keen to understand how teachers in Ras Al Khaimah felt about including students on the autism spectrum. This was especially important for us, as knowledge of autism and the concept of inclusive education are mainly developed in Western countries, with many other countries importing these policies and knowledge. We wanted to know how this cultural transfer of knowledge happens.

With funding from the Al Qasimi Foundation, we gathered data from teachers at various school settings, including government schools and private schools, across the age range and from Emirati and non-Emirati teachers. To make our questionnaire accessible, we had the option of filling it in either Arabic or English. We then conducted individual interviews to explore the topics that emerged from our survey data. The developing picture shows a mixed knowledge base of autism among teachers. They knew some basic facts about autism and its characteristics, with many considering genetics as a possible cause and identifying lack of eye contact and differences in sensory processing as autism features. However, at the same time, some of these teachers also thought that autism was curable, that lack of parental interaction with their child can cause autism, and that most children on the autism spectrum prefer to be alone and show aggressive behavior.

Many of the teachers agreed that inclusive education is good in principle, but only students who could communicate verbally and did not show any behavior problems should be accessing regular schools. This view is perhaps an outcome of a limited belief in their own skills for supporting students of determination. Most teachers in our study felt they did not have the required skills to teach students on the autism spectrum and said they would require specialist support. Equally, many indicated that specialist provision would be a better place for students with autism.

The views expressed by these teachers highlight the challenges involved in making inclusive education a reality in Ras Al Khaimah. While the governmental policy suggests inclusive education as its ambition, the infrastructure required to reach it is not adequately provided across all schooling provisions. Inclusive and special education is not part of many teacher training programs, and there are limited high-quality professional development opportunities for current teachers. Often schools and teachers require shadow teachers, which does not foster inclusion, and employing the shadow teacher is considered to be parental responsibility. Schools would also benefit from having specialist professionals (such as autism advisory teachers and speech therapists) employed by government education departments for schools to turn to when they need such advice to support a student on the autism spectrum.

Our research project has convinced us that unless some strategic planning is undertaken to provide the required knowledge, skills, and resources to schools and teachers in the public and private sectors, inclusive education may remain a dream for many parents and teachers in the UAE. Our professional development session for teachers via Ras Al Khaimah’s Teachers Network was the first step towards addressing some of these issues, and we hope that we will be able to support schools and teachers in developing inclusive education for all students of determination through future projects and collaborations.

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