Helping schools educate students with autism

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Wendy Clayton, an autism specialist for Newport News Public Schools, has seen some dramatic changes in her students over the past several years.

One of those students, whose behavior issues kept him out of public schools for a time, is now a fully integrated participant at the Aviation Academy in Newport News, a specialized program that prepares students for careers in engineering, aviation, electronics and technology.

Another student did not talk or read when he arrived at high school. Today he does both.

Each of these examples is a result of work Clayton and Newport News Public Schools have done since 2011 with the Virginia Commonwealth University Autism Center for Excellence (VCU-ACE), a university-based technical assistance, professional development and educational research center for autism spectrum disorders serving Virginia – the only one of its kind in the commonwealth.

“It’s incomprehensible to know where we would be had we not had the support [of VCU-ACE] and to see where we are now,” Clayton said. “Everyone is really very happy with learning and doing and seeing that the new methods and practices really work.”

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In 2011, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) approached VCU’s Paul Wehman, Ph.D., to plan and fund what would become VCU-ACE. Wehman is a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation with joint appointments in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling in the School of Allied Health Professions and the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy in the School of Education. He now serves as the center’s director.

“The first person that we turned to was Dr. Paul Wehman and his staff because of their nationally recognized work in autism spectrum disorders,” said John Eisenberg, assistant superintendent in the Division of Special Education and Student Services, VDOE. “We reached out especially because of their work in looking at autism from a systemic change perspective.”

Wehman has infused that perspective into all of the work that VCU-ACE does.

“We aren’t just looking at and working with special education teachers, but rather at the public schools as a whole community because we don’t want these kids isolated in one room at the end of the hall or in a special school,” he said. “We want them included in regular kindergarten activities. We want the parents to participate in regular PTA activities.”

Demand for VCU-ACE services has increased significantly during the past four years. In that time, the number of children and youth with autism in Virginia’s public schools has increased from 9,000 to about 13,500, a continuing growth of 10 to 15 percent every year.

The demand for autism training and education is one of the most pressing educational issues in Virginia, said Eisenberg, who Wehman said has been the driving force behind VCU-ACE

According to Wehman, the increased demand is a result of two factors. The first is that more children are being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders as definitions and identification guidelines continue to change.

“The other reason is that these kids and youth are extremely difficult to work with,” he said. “They’re very exciting to work with and they have really unique personalities – a lot of them are extremely smart – but it’s very hard for us who do not have autism to understand how to draw their strengths and their gifts out.”

There are two categories of tools in place at VCU-ACE to help Virginia school system employees find and nurture these strengths and gifts:  training and professional development, and technical assistance.

Training and professional development

VCU-ACE works with all school districts in Virginia to provide comprehensive training for individuals working with students with autism spectrum disorders.  A variety of formats and training methods are used, and the most popular courses are administered online and are directly accessible through the VCU-ACE website.

Training services are offered in four basic categories.

·    Screening, diagnosis and identification – VCU-ACE works across the state with pediatricians, early intervention specialists and child care programs to lower the age of identification of autism “so that kids in the state are being identified at 2 and 3 years old, not 5, 6 and 7,” Wehman said. “When we started, the average age [of identification] was 5.8, and that is way too old. Not that you can’t help them after that, but that earlier identification is kind of the golden period for catching up.“

·    Course work in applied behavior analysis (ABA)– Through the VCU School of Education, course work is offered in ABA, which focuses on applications of behavioral learning theories to help teachers and specialists teach kids how to better communicate, behave, socialize and function independently.

·    Distance education – The largest training program VCU-ACE offers is distance education. Four courses are offered regularly online in foundations of autism, evidence-based practices for teaching those with autism, supporting positive behaviors and – for parents – a course titled “My Child was Just Identified with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: Now What Do I Do?”

·    PARAPro (Paraprofessionals in Autism Resource and Achievement Project) – in 2012, VCU-ACE was written into Virginia General Assembly House Bill 325, which requires, by Sept. 1 of this year, that aides working with students with autism spectrum disorders receive training in student behavioral management. VCU-ACE developed a five-week course and has since trained more than 4,000 paraprofessionals from across Virginia.

By design, VCU-ACE training programs are applicable and available to a wide range of audiences.

Dawn Hendricks, Ph.D., assistant professor in the VCU Department of Special Education and Disability Policy, is the center’s director of training.

“A student may have an autism spectrum disorder yet be educated in a gifted program, while another student may require very intensive and direct instruction to learn skills needed to be independent,” she said. “This means that students with ASD will be educated in any environment, so it is important to reach special education teachers, general education teachers, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, paraprofessionals and administrators.”

Technical assistance

In 12 school districts, VCU-ACE staff members have worked directly for three years with special education directors, parent groups and school superintendents to teach the entire district about what autism is, how to deal with autism issues and how to change the mindset and culture toward accepting individuals with autism.

“Rather than try to spread ourselves thin by doing technical assistance throughout the whole state, we embed ourselves in the selected school districts to really make them excellent,” Wehman said.

Some focus is placed on transitions so that, for example, when students with autism come out of a preschool program they can go into a kindergarten class, or when a student is graduating and going into a vocational program, the school system has a way to facilitate.

Technical Assistance is individualized and is driven by the needs of the school division. Upon initiation of services by VCU-ACE, technical assistance associates assist selected school divisions in completing a self-assessment and developing a services improvement plan. The plans include goals and targets to make the district more receptive and skilled in working with people with autism.

Goals aim to:

·    Increase child study teams' ability to accurately identify and assess students with ASD.
·    Increase knowledge and implementation of Individual Positive Behavior Support Strategies.
·    Increase the quality of IEP development in terms of relevance, functionality and measurability of goals and objectives.
·    Increase the ability of general education staff to implement federally required accommodations and modifications.
·    Increase the knowledge of school personnel, students and parents in the use of handheld assistive technology.
·    Increase parent participation and satisfaction with school division services.
·    Increase the knowledge and skills of administrators in guiding special and general education teachers who teach students with ASD.
·    Increase knowledge of transition planning, secondary intervention, social skills competence and benefits counseling.

As the first three-year technical assistance rotation comes to an end this year, VCU-ACE will continue to provide support to the original 12 school districts, but will add another six.

“That certainly won’t cover the whole state, but it was the Department of Education’s decision to do more intense technical assistance work with a small number of districts and let our training side hit a much larger number,” Wehman said.

“I am eternally grateful,” said Clayton, whose Newport News district was one of the original 12 school districts. “Anytime I had a question, somebody was there with an answer or a resource.

“And all the way through this process sustainability has been emphasized. They made it clear that if it is just one of us working toward our goals it is not going to work.”

“We’re embedded over a three-year period to not just change a classroom, but an entire school district to be more embracing, knowledgeable and technically skilled in working with kids with autism,” Wehman said. “And that means paraprofessionals, guidance counselors, principals, school boards and parents.”


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