by Belinda Breeze

By Dr Sarah Benson, head of subject group for education, and inclusive & special education needs programme director at the University of Birmingham Dubai

To construct truly inclusive education systems, it is vital for teachers to have the necessary knowledge about disabilities to dismantle barriers in traditional classrooms. While continuing professional development often supplements and develops teaching practices, with ‘tips and tricks’, it is rare that teachers are provided theoretical and nuanced information about the complexities of varying differences in learners. Teachers need both the strategies provided in traditional continuing professional development as well as research-backed, theoretical, and disability-specific information to increase their knowledge alongside their practice.

The limited opportunities to gain theoretical knowledge and understanding about disability impact teachers working with students with autism spectrum conditions. Recent research undertaken by the University of Birmingham-Dubai faculty in the UAE exposed outdated, stereotypical knowledge of autistic learners that can work against efforts to create inclusive classrooms. This research was sponsored by the AlQasimi Foundation and included surveys and interviews with current and former teachers in public and private schools.

A widely held misconception by surveyed teachers in the UAE is that persons with autism prefer to be alone (92% of respondents). This is a globally held stereotype, which is often reinforced by media portrayals of autism. However, recent research co-created with autistic individuals stresses the importance of and desire for relationships with other people. It is more often environmental stimulus and lack of empathy for different communication styles that act as barriers. Once a teacher understands that students with autism might enjoy and desire relationships with peers, they can begin building more structured social time in the classroom with sensory and communication supports for students.

While research exposes the gaps in teacher knowledge it can also support teachers to deepen their knowledge. Teacher development, such as postsecondary degrees and regular access to research journals can help break down misconceptions about many education related issues, including special education needs. Giving teachers access to the most up-to-date research in the field and supporting critical thinking of this research will create more fidelity in practice. The additional result of focused study and knowledge development will be improved practices for inclusion.

Another example of a commonly held misconception in the UAE is that students with autism have behaviour problems in schools and need specialist intervention as a result (72% of respondents). Understanding the underlying reasons students with autism might become disruptive, selfinjurious, +6  or engage in activity refusal will help teachers create more inclusive classrooms. If teachers develop an understanding of the sensory input needs and communication patterns of children with autism, they can better identify when a child’s needs are being unmet and causing stress and anxiety. Focusing on why students with autism might display difficult behaviours can help teachers address underlying issues by removing barriers and increasing support. Traditional continuing professional development often focuses on ‘what’ to do, not ‘why’ the behaviour is occurring in the first place.

The increased accountability for schools to create inclusive educational settings must be met with increased knowledge and understanding of disabilities. Developing teacher practices without addressing the underlying barriers for specific learners amounts to a hollow practice.

An in-depth and nuanced understanding of disabilities developed through postgraduate academic courses and reading the research will increase knowledge and empower teachers to dismantle barriers with knowledge and practices.  

At the University of Birmingham Dubai, the School of Education actively works with aspiring and established educators to build their understanding of support and education for learners with disabilities. The MA Education (Inclusion, Special Educational Needs) focuses on exploring international debates and solutions associated with educational policy and practice in the areas of inclusion, disability, and special educational needs.

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