After conducting a fascinating research study on education and the inclusion of autistic children in Palestine, Elaine Ashbee has recently been awarded a PhD at the University of Birmingham. Elaine previously worked as an advisory teacher to support the educational inclusion of autistic children, and embarked on her research following her long-standing relationship with Qattan Centre for Educational Research and Development (QCERD), a progressive Palestinian charity. Here she describes how she tackled her project, the difficulties faced by autistic children on the West Bank, and offers signs of hope that their lives and those of their families are improving.
Life in the West Bank is tough. Even though autism is an emerging field of interest in Palestine, there is a lack of opportunity to learn about it and share practice. Diagnosis is unreliable and it is likely that most autistic children are unidentified. Indeed until recently, autism was often understood only in terms of deficits, and the diversity of the autistic population was not well understood. Autistic children and their families were vulnerable to stigma and social isolation: autism was sometimes seen as a ‘punishment from god’. While education is highly valued in Palestine and school attendance is high, my study found that very few children with autism actually went to school. Further, even though there are dedicated centres of ‘special needs’ provision within communities, these depend on insecure charitable funding.
However, despite numerous challenges, I came across many teachers who are resourceful, resilient, creative, deeply caring and open to new ideas. Like Hanan Al-Hroub, the Palestinan teacher who recently won the global best teacher award. There were also examples of successfully developing practice, notably in the two schools involved in the study. Moreover, despite the fact that there was no consensus about what inclusion is or how it might be accomplished, the concept of inclusion was given widespread support.
As April is the month when World Autism Awareness is marked, it is important to think about different perspectives and ideas about autism across the world. My research in the West Bank of Palestine, in a culture not my own, brought into focus the crucial nature – and even dangers – of international viewpoints in thinking about the education of autistic children. While we can reflect on and develop our practice and understandings by broadening horizons and sharing ideas between cultures, there is nevertheless a danger in thinking that practices in one part of the world can be transferred wholesale to other cultures. I believe that a diversity of perspectives can enrich thinking and as my study developed I focussed on the process of sharing knowledge and understanding between people with different perspectives. The notion of ‘interstanding’, gleaned from Julie Allan (2008), offered a dialectic process of shared understanding that goes to the heart of my study, to try to bridge the gap between autistic and non-autistic people, between educators, other professionals and families, between cultures, languages, researchers and research participants.
My research grew out of my relationship with QCERD and built on friendships and a sense of solidarity with Palestinian teachers and families struggling to live meaningful lives, despite the injustices of colonisation. In 2010, with new media awareness of autism in Palestine, I was asked to help develop educational approaches for autistic children. I approached ACER for backup and Dr Karen Guldberg supported me in the design and conduct of my research project. The purpose of my research was very practical: having been told that not much was known about autism in Palestine, I wanted to offer something useful for teachers and families. QCERD gave financial support for my visits to Palestine, valuable advice and employed a young woman, Rasha Mesleh, as my translator / assistant. Without this support the research would not have been possible.
My research question seemed simple: what opportunities are there to develop inclusive educational practice and provision for autistic children in Palestine? My reading had alerted me to the importance of local responses to local needs and the dangers of imposing inappropriate ‘off the shelf’ approaches from the West. I adopted a research approach that would help me to understand Palestinian perspectives and experiences at the same time as reflecting on my own understandings, as well as sharing some of my own knowledge, I was able to learn from them. I saw myself as an ally, not a ‘foreign expert’.
There were two strands to my research. The first was a case study with a strong dimension of action research in which I worked with teachers and practitioners in two very different educational settings, one in Ramallah and one in Jerusalem. Both were working to include autistic children and we collaborated to develop practice and knowledge by focussing on the needs of the existing pupils. The second strand of the research looked at the wider context in Palestine through a series of visits and semi-structured interviews with parents, professionals, community organisations, universities and the Ministry of Education. I also gained valuable insights by working with a large group of Inclusive Education Counsellors, sharing my own understandings of autism but hearing their perspectives.
My study concluded with a set of 21 recommendations. I proposed that knowledge and practice could be developed through collaborative partnerships, using a Communities of Practice approach, borrowing from lessons learnt in the development of materials and strategy for the Autism Education Trust in the UK and empowering those involved in the process. I made recommendations for improved identification of autism, for building educational capacity and for the reconceptualisation of inclusion, an issue that I discussed at length in my thesis. I proposed Palestinians as creators of knowledge, not mere recipients, for a follow-on project to build on my research using the methodology and approach that ACER developed for the Transform Autism Education international project. This, I proposed, should involve autistic people and their families and focus on areas to benefit their lives.
Allan, J., 2008. Rethinking Inclusive Education: the philosophers of difference in practice. The Netherlands: Springer.