“It is vital that the goals of inclusion of students on the spectrum among principals, school health professionals and teachers are shared in order to reduce the gap between policy and practice and prevent the problem of exclusion that many of these students are experiencing.” Ann-Charlotte Linton
We first learned about Ann-Charlotte Linton via her doctoral thesis To include or not to include: Teachers’ social representations of inclusion of students with Asperger syndrome. As the focus of her doctoral research is still very relevant today, we were glad to have the opportunity to connect with her for this interview.
THRIVE Nordics: Can you share a bit about your history of working in education and particularly experiences working with students on the spectrum?
Ann-Charlotte: I have worked in mainstream upper secondary schools as a teacher of Swedish and English for many years. In my teaching I came across students who were having problems I did not recognize or know how to deal with. There were clear discrepancies between their oral and written production, they had problems with interaction in the classroom and also getting assignments done. Also, they were frequently absent from class and might even stay home for longer periods of time. In my teacher training in the 80’s there was nothing about special needs or disabilities except for dyslexia. I decided that I needed to learn more about the provision for these students that I sometimes met in my mainstream classroom. I took some courses at the university in special needs education and also about the autism spectrum and got involved in special education which led to my interest in inclusion of students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
THRIVE Nordics: What was the motivation for research for your thesis work To include or not to include: Teachers’ social representations of inclusion of students with Asperger syndrome (Linköping University)? Why did you choose that particular theme?
Ann-Charlotte: My research interest was adaptations required for inclusive education and a general interest for the promotion of a school adapted to students’ individual prerequisites. Students with ASD need structure and routines and to feel secure in the classroom, however the reality showed something different. I realized that students with ASD often had anxiety about coming to school. They were stressed by the fact that they couldn’t make sense of their school environment and live up to the expectations school had on them. They often skipped classes. Stress led to burn out. At the same time, they were supposed to be included. When I turned to the literature, I found that there was very little research done on the inclusion of students with ASD in general and limited knowledge in Sweden as well. That led to my decision to penetrate attitudes towards inclusion of these specific students into mainstream schools: To include or not to include.
THRIVE Nordics: Your thesis was published five years ago in 2015 and is very relevant today. What are your reflections on the fact that you have written a critical paper that helps provide insight to the challenges of today’s education model when it concerns accommodating many children on the spectrum?
Ann-Charlotte: Even though some five years have passed, inclusion is still a hot potato and many of the issues concerning inclusion are still relevant. Changes in attitudes and behavior come about very slowly. Our research showed that there might be reasons for more flexible solutions for students on the spectrum such as being partly included. There are indications that flexible solutions are gaining ground e.g. flex teams (teams of professionals seeking flexible, implementable solutions) are appearing in elementary schools which seems to be a good investment as the support appears at an early stage in the student’s education.
THRIVE Nordics: I want to address some of the headings from your paper in the next few questions and explore further. One heading is ‘Inclusion: numerous interpretations’. This section highlights the complexity of the various, sometimes even contradictory, interpretations of how inclusive education should look. What are your thoughts about the development of a common understanding in Swedish society of best practices for inclusive education and how to ensure that schools can in fact implement them?
Ann-Charlotte: Today teachers are better equipped for the challenge of attaining the goal of inclusion. But strategies are found most efficient when school leaders, school health professionals and teachers share a common vision and when there are efforts to work in ways which are consistent with it. However, our research showed that there is a lack of arenas for “whole school approach” conversations. When there is not a common goal for inclusion within the municipality it will not be assessed, and no development will take place. Instead everybody will provide from their own professional horizon. It is vital that the goals of inclusion of students on the spectrum among principals, school health professionals and teachers are shared in order to reduce the gap between policy and practice and prevent the problem of exclusion that many of these students are experiencing.
THRIVE Nordics: Another section in your thesis, ‘Student’s rights, access and participation’, is insightful in terms of understanding how inclusion can help to reduce marginalization which has been historically and systematically experienced by many students with special needs. However, though the focus on children’s rights to education is equitable and just, the reality is that an inclusive model without resources or ability to adapt to children with different learning needs can be anything but fair for a child who has challenges adapting in a mainstream and “inclusive” setting. What are your thoughts on addressing the lack of access that many children are experiencing, leading to many cases of “hemmasittare”, burn out, exhaustion etc?
Ann-Charlotte: To make inclusion work for students on the spectrum the environment needs to be adapted to each individual’s needs which demands collaboration on the organization level, the classroom level and the individual student level simultaneously. The classroom environment can be a real challenge for these students since they are vulnerable to stress and unpredictable situations. They can also find it hard to deal with a bustling classroom since they are not able to filter background noise. In spite of the good intentions for an inclusive school environment there is a great need for social and educational support to avoid school absenteeism. Staying at home could be a way to handle the stress and anxiety the students experience if the environment isn’t adapted to the individual’s needs. It’s very important to create a climate that supports these students and their development.
THRIVE Nordics: The Salamanca Statement is at the root of the contemporary inclusive education model. What is your perspective on the pivotal role this statement held in the creation of the education model that exists today?
Ann-Charlotte: Our school policy rhetoric advocates an inclusive school since the Salamanca Declaration but still today there is a great discrepancy between theory and practice. The starting point should be that we have a school where everyone has the right to a good education in a safe environment. Students on the spectrum have pronounced problems with their schooling and many do not reach their goals. The interpretation of the statement that everyone should be taught together has been a disadvantage for special needs education the way I see it because it is also a question of money. Obviously, there is not enough money allocated to extra support and school assistants. Even though many municipalities are struggling with the budget, every student is entitled to support and flexible solutions when needed to reach the goals, according to Swedish school law.
THRIVE Nordics: What research do you see as needed in Sweden to help improve educational provisions and adaption for education for children on the spectrum?
Ann-Charlotte: Future research should explore how inclusion is enhanced or inhibited by the design of the classroom and school. It’s important to follow up the outcome of the more flexible solutions provided by so called flex teams. Also, the students’ and the parents’ voices need to be heard in order to explore how they view the need for adaptation of the school environment and how to attain goals. In addition, there is a need for motivational research to study what engages students on the spectrum and motivates them to come to class. Given their special interests they might not be motivated by the same factors as students in the mainstream classes such as grades and reinforcement.
THRIVE Nordics: Finally, congratulations on your retirement! Do you have any special projects planned?
Ann-Charlotte: Thank you. I have no project planned at the moment but hopefully I’ll find new avenues for exploring the issues of inclusion. Right now I’m helping out at the theatre and enjoy having more time for reading, gardening and grandchildren.
BIO: Ann-Charlotte Linton has recently retired after working within the field of education since 1983, She is a teacher in special education specializing in adolescents within the autism spectrum. She has a master’s degree in Special Education pedagogics from Örebro University and a PhD from the Swedish Institute for Disability Research at Linköping University.