A concern for children with developmental disorders and disabilities in Oman has spawned special education classes across the desert nation, from its urban seaports to its rural outskirts. The middle-class country of 3.3 million people is rapidly investing in early-intervention programs for preschool-aged children, prepping those with disabilities or developmental disorders for mainstream classrooms.
Mainstream teachers in Muscat, the capital of Oman, however, remain woefully unfamiliar with their new students' needs and limitations. A survey of 164 Omani schoolteachers indicates they have a poor understanding of the causes and features of autism, reports a study published 22 October in Autism.
The multiple-choice questionnaire surveyed public and private elementary-school teachers from five schools in Muscat. Only 18 of the teachers surveyed said they had met a child with autism, perhaps explaining why the rest carry so many misconceptions about the disorder.
When asked to select one or more possible causes of autism, more than 60 percent of the teachers said the disorder could be caused by parents who mistreat or neglect their young children. Another 11 percent of the teachers, or 18 of them, said eating certain foods could cause the disorder, and 8 percent blamed vaccinations.
Some of the teachers were more familiar with the current understanding of autism: About half said that genetics plays an important role in its development and nearly 40 percent answered that researchers have yet to definitively pin down the disorder’s cause.
Interestingly, 42 percent of women, compared with 26 percent of the men, agreed that the disorder’s cause remains unclear.
The teachers’ understanding of autism’s features is also fuzzy. More than 70 percent said children with autism do not enjoy the presence of others, and about half said that those with autism can only communicate through movements or symbols. Neither statement accurately describes all children on the autism spectrum. Only 20 percent of the teachers said they knew autism is a lifelong disorder, or that it affects more boys than girls.
These numbers are disheartening, but access to better educational materials or workshops may raise the figures, the researchers say. They also suggest adding college classes or lectures on autism to the standard teaching curriculum.
Still, raising awareness in Oman is bound to be complicated because of the stigma associated with the disorder. About 40 percent of the teachers reported that children with autism and their families face strong negative reactions.
This may also explain why a 2010 study in Oman identified only 113 children with autism under the age of 14 in the country.
The survey found some positive trends indicating the teachers’ openness to learning about autism: 70 percent of the teachers noted the value of early diagnosis and intervention, and the vast majority acknowledged that children with autism don’t receive the services they need.
News and Opinion articles on SFARI.org are editorially independent of the Simons Foundation.