Inclusion of children with autism into schools

April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. Mst. Maleka Parveen writes about the ways through which children with autism can be included into schooling system and the progress Bangladesh has made in this area

00011Historically, World Autism Awareness Day has been observed on April 2nd every year following the United Nations General Assembly resolution 62/139 adopted on December 18, 2007 and proposed by representatives of the state of Qatar and after receiving support from all member states. The aim of the day is to raise awareness about issues surrounding people, particularly children with autism, throughout the world.
This year’s theme is ‘Autism and the 2030 Agenda: Inclusion and Neurodiversity’. In September 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the ambitious new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that promise to leave no one behind. While all SDGs are universally applicable, disability and persons with disabilities are explicitly referenced in the following goals:  4) Quality Education; 8) Decent Work and Economic Growth; 10) Reduced inequalities; 11) Sustainable Cities and Communities; and 17) Partnerships for the Goals. Thus, in 2016, World Autism Awareness Day will focus ahead to 2030 and reflect on the new SDGs and their implications for improving the lives of people with autism.
The term ‘autism spectrum disorder (ASD)’ describes a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopment disorders, characterised by impairments in social interaction, problems with verbal and non-verbal communication and restricted, repetitive behavior, interests and activities. It is a lifelong developmental disability that manifests itself during the first three years of life and adversely impacts a child’s educational programme. The rate of autism in all regions of the world is high and it has a tremendous impact on children, their families, communities and societies.
Despite the obstacles, a growing number of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder are now educated in mainstream settings. The difficulties they have in relation to communication, social interaction and flexibility of thought can create problems for them in a school environment where sometimes their needs are not fully understood.
A strong reaction to sensory stimulation can also make school a very stressful place. It is essential therefore that the school and the teachers are aware of these needs in order to alleviate stress and maximise learning potential.
It is also crucial to enhance the social interaction of the students with autism in order to acquire a sense of belonging and membership. For all the above reasons, the concept of inclusion is the most appropriate and useful when it comes to the education of children with autism.
Now-a-days, inclusive education has become to the education policies of large numbers of countries in both the developed and developing world as a ‘global agenda’. The concept of inclusion means that schools must provide effective learning opportunities for all students based on their cultural, physical and learning needs. Inclusive education is not a marginal issue, but is central to the achievement of high quality education for all learners and the development of more inclusive societies.
From a global perspective, the notion of inclusion seems to be conceptualised differently as countries have varying contexts which influence how it is understood and implemented.
Moreover, students with autism present markedly different educational needs and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion. Differentiated instruction, school curriculum, teaching methods, academic support, organisation and resources need to be adapted to ensure that all learners, irrespective of their ability, can successfully participate in the regular classrooms. Therefore, the push for inclusion is driven in some cases by a powerful philosophical movement to understand the long term impact of inclusion practices.
The inclusive classroom placement of the children with autism must be based upon a number of factors, including the values and philosophy of teachers and family members, the availability of evidence-based treatments and well-trained staff in various environments, and specific child factors such as targets for intervention and problematic behaviors. Under any circumstances, cultural and social movements have opened up more opportunities for inclusion and how to make inclusion successful for students with autism.
In Bangladesh, most people in rural areas have false beliefs and stigma about autism. This stigma and lack of awareness act as a barrier to promote inclusive education for students with autism. However, over the last six years, the government of Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in reducing the stigma related to autism and taken some necessary steps to solve the problem of autism.
According to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, every citizen is equal in the eye of law. As a part of awareness of autism, in 2010, the Centre for Neurodevelopment and Autism in Children (CNAC) was established as a nationwide Pediatric Neurodevelopment and Autism related management, training and research centre in Bangladesh.
In 2011, Bangladesh hosted the International Conference, titled ‘Autism Spectrum Disorders and Developmental Disabilities in Bangladesh and South Asia’. In this conference, ‘Dhaka Declaration on autism’ was ratified by seven regional countries. This declaration highlighted the need for awareness, treatment, research and legislative framework for children with autism.
Furthermore, the Bangladesh government has assured to ensure education for all by 2018 and has undertaken a good number of policy initiatives to provide equity and access of all children to education.
The need for universal education for all children, regardless of any special circumstances, has been reflected from the birth of this country through its constitution in 1972. The national education policy (2010) recognises inclusive education as a strategy to ensure education for all citizens. Thus, inclusive education was introduced in the Primary Education Development Plan II (2004-2011) which addressed some of the barriers faced by children with disabilities.
On the other hand, the Primary Education Development Plan III (2012-2017) includes making schools more accessible while introducing stipends to support for children with disabilities including students with autism.
At the moment, inclusive education in Bangladesh is perceived as a cumulative social responsibility to educate all children including autism in regular classroom. This momentum needs to be maintained to ensure that these children do receive the education and upbringing that they deserve.

The author is an Assistant professor of the psychology department at the University of Dhaka. She is currently completing her higher studies on Special Needs Education at University of Oslo, Norway

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