Preparing Teachers for Students with Autism
Candace Baker, Ph.D.
Director of the Autism Interventions Center at Texas A&M International University
There is little argument that the awareness of the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate the prevalence to be 1 in 88 individuals nationwide (CDC, 2012). With the increase in diagnosis of ASD comes the awareness of the unique needs of individuals with an ASD. Yet, colleges of education rarely have an Autism specialization within their special education teacher preparation programs. Even though many students with ASD are served in general education classrooms (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), few general education teachers receive any training on evidence-based practices for students with ASD. There are several factors that may account for the lack of Autism training programs in teacher preparation.
Probably first and foremost is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) did not have a category for Autism until the 1990 reauthorization. Prior to 1991, children with autism who required special education services were reported under varying categories. In fact, it was not until 2002 that the autism category was included in the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) Division on Developmental Disabilities (CEC-DDD, 2003). Under historical categorical teacher credentialing, autism was rarely a category for a teacher credential. The CEC did not have a set of standards for training teachers for the category of autism until 2009. It wasn’t until the 2009 CEC Convention in Seattle, that the CEC-DDD changed its name to the Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities (CEC-DADD).
There seems to be a general consensus that there is an increase in the identification of children with autism who require special education services (Bitterman et. al., 2008; Boyd & Shaw, 2010). As stated in Yell et. al. (2003) there was an increase from 5,415 students identified with autism in 1991-1992 to 65,424 in the 1999-2000 school year. However, very little is known about personnel preparation in autism even though lack of qualified personnel to serve students with autism has been successfully litigated under IDEA (Yell et. al., 2003).
Even though autism is a spectrum disorder (ASD) people with autism are placed within a heterogeneous group (Heflin & Simpson, 1998); the within-group variance matches the population as a whole. However, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), the hallmark characteristics of ASD are delays in language and social functioning with unusual repetitive behaviors. Therefore, the standards for preparing teachers to teach students with autism require preparation for high-incidence, low-incidence, and birth to 22 knowledge and skills. Even the states with programs divided by incidence rather than by category continually have difficulty successfully including autism training into their programs (Ludlow et. al., 2005). Indeed, autism does not fit squarely into either low-incidence or high-incidence. Some states that are using these terms for purposes of personnel preparation include ASD within Severe Disabilities (low-incidence) even though prevalence rates would indicate autism to be more prevalent than a low-incidence disability (Ludlow et. al., 2005; Smith et al., 2008).
Established Preparation Programs
Currently, most undergraduate teacher preparation programs in higher education offer training as a generalist special education teacher. A few programs specialize in either high incidence or low incidence preparation. Barnhill, Polloway, and Sumutka (2011) reported their findings of preparation practices from surveying 87 institutions of higher education to show much variability across institutions. The results of their survey showed that 41% of reporting institutions offered no ASD-specific coursework within the special education degree. Another interesting finding was that 77% reported their ASD coursework was in place for only 1 to 7 years. In addition, half of the institutions indicated their states had not developed autism competencies for educators, 30% said their states did have autism competencies, and 14% did not know whether their state had competencies for autism.
It is more common for advanced level training (master’s degree programs) to specialize in categorical preparation. A review of Texas university websites (conducted March 2012) found 35 of 66 universities offering a Master’s Degree in Special Education. Of those 35 universities with a Master’s Degree in Special Education, over half (53%) were for preparation as a generalist and/or educational diagnostician. Another five universities offered a Master’s Degree in Special Education with a minor in Autism, and 3 with a minor in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). Only 4 universities offered a complete Master’s Degree in Autism studies. Even though there were programs focused on autism studies, the programs varied. For example, one institution offered both a minor for Autism to the special education degree and also offered a MS in Autism Interventions. Five institutions offered Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) coursework within the Autism programs, and one institution offered no ABA coursework. Given the definition of ASD in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) having a focus on language and communication, it was interesting to note that not all institutions included coursework for language and ASD. Only 4 of the institutions included identifiable language coursework within the degree plan. Of those 4 programs, 3 of the institutions offered the language course as a special education offering for language development of students with disabilities. Only one institution included coursework offered by a communication sciences and disorders program in the Autism degree. It was also the only institution to offer a course for augmentative and alternative communication within the Autism degree plan. So even though this review of programs was limited to universities in a large state such as Texas, it is likely that programs in other states are equally varied. There seems to be very little standardization for autism programs, and there seems to be no accountability measures in place for teacher preparation in the field of autism.
Advancing Evidence-Based Practices for Autism
There is greater consensus in the professional literature about individual strategies and methods for educating students who have autism. The National Research Council (2001) published a report identifying basic elements for any programs serving students with ASD. The report listed program components such as early and intensive intervention, low student to teacher ratio, and planned teaching opportunities. Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kinkaid (2003) reviewed the literature base for effective strategies for students with ASD. Noting that most scientifically researched knowledge was developed from studies involving young children; the authors posited that the strategies should be effective for older students as well. From the literature they identified 6 essential themes: 1) individualized supports and services for students and families, 2) systematic instruction, 3) comprehensible and/or structured environments, 4) specialized curriculum content, 5) a functional approach to problem behaviors, and 6) family involvement (p. 153). The authors go on to list many specific strategies under each theme that showed positive outcomes for students with ASD (most often using applied behavior analysis). With similar findings in the professional literature, Scheuermann et. al. (2003, p. 203) recommended a Summary of Competency Areas for teachers of students with ASD. The Summary reports 13 areas that incorporate the themes described previously in Iovannone et. al. (2003): 1) knowledge of the disorder, 2) parent involvement, 3) theoretical underpinnings of instructional approaches (ABA, Cognitive, Biophysical), 4) curriculum development (individualizing, futures planning), 5) additional strategies (shaping, joint action routines, joint attention), 6) teaching language and communication, 7) teaching social competence, 8) adaptive behaviors and transitions, 9) structure and the classroom, 10) trial-by-trial teaching, 11) naturalistic teaching, 12) decreasing problem behaviors, and 13) special issues.
More recently, The National Autism Center convened a panel of experts in 2005 to review autism treatments for evidence-based practices. The results of that project are found in the National Standards Report (2009: http://www.nationalautismcenter.org/nsp/ ) that categorized interventions into 1) Established Treatments, 2) Emerging Treatments, 3) Unestablished treatments, and 4) Ineffective/Harmful Treatments. The established treatments list several applied behavior analysis practices, joint attention, peer mediated packages, and naturalistic teaching strategies to name a few. Emerging treatments listed developmental relationship based, social communication, cognitive behavioral packages, and theory of mind strategies among others. Unestablished treatments included special diets, sensory integration packages, and auditory integration.
Concurrently, The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders (http://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/) convened a similar project that yielded 24 evidence-based practices and developed web-based modules for each practice. Many of the evidence-based practices are the same and include several applied behavior analysis techniques, naturalistic interventions, social narratives, self-management, video modeling and visual supports within the 24 practices.
Preparation Programs on the Horizon
Even though the professional literature contains a comprehensive set of evidence-based practices for individuals with ASD, not all teachers need to be fluent with all of the strategies. Many students with ASD will be able to function appropriately within a general education environment with little support. Others may function appropriately with support from a special education teacher on a limited basis. Still others may need an intensive comprehensive program. Given the range of students who are classified with Autism, it may be that preparation programs need to approach teacher preparation for Autism from a 3-Tiered perspective. In other words, Reschly (2007) stated that teachers working with students who need lesser or more intensive strategies need “overlapping but different skill sets” (p. 7). In order to develop appropriate preparation models for teachers who will teach students with ASD, it is imperative that preparation programs infuse evidence-based practices into the coursework. Yet, there needs to be agreement among experts concerning the different skill sets needed by general education teachers, special education teachers who provide inclusive supports and special education teachers who provide full instructional programs and related service providers. After experts are able to determine the needed 3-Tiered skill sets for teachers who provide different levels of intensive instruction, then perhaps the standardization of programs across institutions may be feasible.
In order for students with ASD to fully benefit from the provisions of the IDEA, it is essential that their teachers receive training in evidence-based autism interventions. Colleges of Education in Institutes of Higher Education must determine which interventions should be presented within the different teacher preparation programs so that all teachers and related service providers are prepared to collaborate in providing an appropriate education to the students with ASD.
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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (Amended 1990, 1997), Pub. Law. No 105-117. U.S.C.§§ 1400 et seq.
Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kinkaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 150-165.
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National Autism Center (NAC) (2009). National standards report; The national standards project addressing the need for evidence-based practice guidelines for autism spectrum disorders. Randolf, Massachusetts.
National Research Center (NRC) (2001). Educating students with autism. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Reschly, D. J. (2007). Overview document: Teacher quality for multitiered interventions. National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. Washington, D.C.
Scheuermann, B., Webber, J., Boutot, E. A., & Goodwin, M. (2003). Problems with personnel preparation in autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. 18, 197-206.
Smith, T., Polloway, E., Patton, J., & Dowdy, C. (2008). Teaching students in inclusive settings (5th ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorders. autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu
United States Department of Education (2009). Twenty-eighth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington, D.C.: Author
Yell, M., Katsiyannis, A., Drasgow, E., & Herbst, M. (2003). Developing legally and correct educationally appropriate programs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities 18, 182-191.
Reproduced with permission of the Johns Hopkins School of Education, Baltimore, Maryland.
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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