Making special education inclusive: A new and collaborative way forward

Making special education inclusive: 

A new and collaborative way forward

Pua Chee Ling of Dika College, and Tanya Elizabeth Catterall and Joanne Marie Charman of Autism New Zealand, (ANZ) shared their thoughts on why and how special education must be made inclusive within the school, work and community system; and the urgency for all stakeholders to come together to make this happen. In the following interview, they expound on the facets of embracing diversity, keeping the interest of the child as central and the effective practice of inclusion.

Catterall and Charman delivered their keynote address entitled “The Importance of Quality Interpersonal Engagement in Young Children with Autism” and a workshop entitled “Joyous Play – the Key to Engaging Young Children with Autism” at the recently concluded Symposium on Special Education: Diversity and Inclusion which was jointly organised by Dika College Malaysia and ISNC Edu Hub.

When like-minded people meet, especially those who are equally as passionate about special needs, the jet lag from the 9000 km journey gives way to enthusiastic vibes that are inspiring as they are infectious.

“I had an opportunity to attend Neal Stuart of Autism New Zealand’s (ANZ) workshop “Children with Autism Wanna Play too” at a symposium organised by our academic partner. I knew then that I had to get the ANZ insight for our symposium,” enthused Pua. “That aside, I was keen to explore the approaches that ANZ has cultivated over the years, as they resonate with what Dika College has and continue to emphasise, the joy of play,” added Pua

“When we received the invite, we were excited. Nothing thrills us more than collaborating with concurring peers to further the ANZ cause,” said Tanya whose daughter was diagnosed with Autism at the age of two. “It’s thrilling to connect and network with counterparts because we get to share what we do and experience what done in various places across the globe,” said Charman who left her career to become an expert on her son who was diagnosed with Autism when he was three.

In taking every step together, both Catterall and Charman are extremely involved in the ANZ cause to empower people living with Autism in New Zealand.

Not So Different

“While we are driven to believe that special needs children are different, in reality, they are just like any other child,” says Pua Chee Ling. “The truth is every child learns differently. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Some have more challenges with learning and thus, need more time, one-to-one attention and specialised therapy,” added Pua who firmly emphasised that the focus should always be on the learner.

“It is common for practitioners to align themselves to prescribed checklists when managing children with special needs,” said Charman lamenting that the fixation on checking boxes could cause individuals that do not meet the criteria, to fall through the cracks. “The notion of demanding compliance is counter-productive to initiatives or therapies for a child with special needs,” stressed Catterall who shared that her daughter was asked to leave the kindergarten at which she had attended simply because she was unable to be as compliant as the other children.

Charman alluded to the fact, drawing from her experience observing children being made to accomplish repetitious routines void of any joy such as, sitting still and paying attention, among others which detracted from the purpose of supporting a child’s goals at the expense of fulfilling the goals of the therapy programme.

Technique Versus Child-Focus

“When a child is diagnosed, the first thing that many parents do is to obtain information on the possible therapies. Very often, a parent will not know where to start and they end up gravitating to the first solution they encounter. Before they even realise what is happening, parents who are already grappling to come to terms with the situation, find themselves either jostled around from one specialist to another, or from one therapy session to another,” said Pua. “In many instances, there isn’t one single technique that will serve as a remedy,” added Pua explaining that, more often than not, a child will require an in-house team made up of a diverse set of specialists to collectively and seamlessly help an individual.

“There should always be a richer approach as opposed to settling on a one-dimensional methodology,” said Catterall explaining that, as it were in her case, she opted for an approach that focused on engagement and bonding which are essential pre-requisites to learning and furthering potential.

“Children with special needs are unique and they function on their own terms. It is heartbreaking to see them being treated as if they are broken and they need fixing,” shared Charman. “These children do not need a rote routine that expect them to get in line like the rest of the typical children,” added Charman who shared that inoculating the joy into learning and therapy sessions had for her, opened a powerful method of engagement that has led to a gratifying relationship with her son.

Culture of Inclusion

“Malaysia and New Zealand both benefit from a very diverse population. In that respect, we share similar challenges and opportunities to practicing inclusion,” said Pua. “What makes us different actually helps teach others (and vice versa), important values like respect, understanding, tolerance and more. With research showing that children of all types and abilities benefit from being in the same classroom, inclusion seems to be the way to go as it inspires new ways of learning that would not otherwise present itself in a regular classroom,” added Pua.

“For inclusion to achieve its benefits, teacher preparedness is paramount,” highlighted Catterall who has had her share of witnessing children being “expelled” from schools, libraries and public spheres. “A teacher who is trained in managing individuals with special needs is pivotal to the success of inclusion,” emphasised Catterall. “ANZ has various programmes that are focused on teacher training. These small but sure steps have facilitated the acceptance of inclusion in the community,” added Catterall who explained that more schools are beginning to see the benefits of inclusion.

“Inclusion is not a chair in the classroom. It is about empowering the collaboration between typical and A typical individuals,” said Charman who stressed that for this to happen, programmes that create and instil awareness is key to a better understanding of one another. “There is hope when the younger generation sees society as one that is equal to and for all,” she added.

Into the Future

In looking ahead Pua, Catterall and Charman concur that self-advocacy, awareness and training are pivotal initiatives which determine the success of inclusion.

“There is so much that we must do to advance the inclusion agenda. We are all self-advocates and we should step up within our own spheres to influence change,” said Pua. “The symposium on Special Needs: Diversity and Inclusion was a coming together of hearts and minds with a single aim of evoking change. It just takes one person to make a difference. We all can and we all must,” added Pua.

“So much awareness is being created on mental health and it has helped shed a light on this area which used to be such a taboo,” said Catterall. “The same should be done for inclusion if we expect the society to appreciate and participate in it,” she said.

In the same vein, Charman hoped that more efforts and initiatives are directed towards training for all stakeholders, especially so for parents and educators so that feelings of fear and apprehension can be replaced with resourcefulness and hope.

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