My research interests in autism are grounded in my experiences working directly with children with autism and their families. My first experience working with children with autism was as an undergraduate student nearly fifteen years ago when autism was not as well known or widely discussed as it is today. Through an internship, I took a position working in an autism clinic at a nearby college. It was an experience that changed the course of my career.
At the time, our expectations for how much students with autism could achieve were very different compared to today. What intrigued me was seeing how—when we provided our students with opportunities and good instruction—they could make great strides both academically and socially.
As I worked toward my Ph.D., I continued to look for a greater understanding of what quality instruction for students with autism looks like and how we can best prepare teachers to work with them.
Autism Education: No “One Size Fits All” Approach
Over the course of my career, I’ve worked with children with autism in a variety of settings: as a teacher in an inclusive classroom where students with autism are educated alongside their typically developing peers; in specialized autism programs; and in-home programs where we worked with kids with autism and their families.
More than almost any other disability, autism presents a wide range of symptoms and aptitudes among students. The key to autism education is gathering data on students in a variety of settings and at a variety of developmental levels. While there are many different approaches to autism education that are appropriate to different settings in and out of school, the common goal is that we’re all working toward helping these students achieve their maximum potential. To do this, we need our research here at CEHD to continue to develop our understanding of best practices for autism education.
Understanding Autism in the Classroom
An important aspect of my research is observing and understanding how characteristics of autism can promote or inhibit children’s ability to participate in classroom activities. My most recent study examines how children with autism participate in what we consider “normal” classroom activities – in this case, shared book reading. What do they do when an adults reads to them?
Reading aloud to children is an activity that professionals value because it promotes language and early literacy. When a parent sits down and reads with their child, we don’t expect a three-year-old to read along with them. What we expect is for the child to ask questions, comment on what they are seeing, and engage in a conversation about the book. It’s about developing oral language skills, an important precursor to developing literacy skills.
Kids with autism—because of their social and communication deficits—will likely have difficulty engaging in reciprocal conversations about a book. If they are not able to meaningfully participate in activity like shared book reading, what does that mean to their ability to develop literacy skills later on?
Developing Better Instructional Strategies in Autism Education
Once we’ve identified difficulties that children with autism encounter that can pose barriers to accessing conventional in-class reading activities, we can tailor our interventions so that teachers are more effective in instructing their students. I started out by asking para-educators or educational assistants to read to the children as they normally would. While there were variations in each professional’s personal reading style, in general we observed that they tended to stick to the text of the book.
In these instances, students with autism would appear attentive—they were sitting and observing quietly—but were not verbally participating. They were not making comments or asking questions, which is really to what we want to see in shared book reading at that age. The data showed that book reading in and of itself is typically not effective at encouraging oral participation for many children with autism.
However, we can improve the number of opportunities children have to participate in book reading by modifying the manner in which adults read with them. To do this, we created an intervention for educators and para-educators that helped them prompt the kids to participate during the reading. We had a number of different prompts to encourage these students to talk. If the child failed to respond, there were some follow-up prompts that teachers would use to encourage participation. This led to improvements in the overall quality of children’s participation during the reading activities, which translated to improvements in both oral language and vocabulary measures.
Improving Outcomes in Autism Education
In Minnesota, we’re making a concerted effort to improve outcomes for our students with autism. The research we conduct here at CEHD is an important part of that effort, but there have also been several changes at the district and state level intended to improve the quality of autism education in the state.
Minneapolis Public Schools is currently implementing a more inclusive approach toward many students with autism, taking them out of specialized autism programs and moving them to their neighborhood schools to promote integration into the general education student population.
In principle, inclusion is a great thing. Based on the research, we know that children with disabilities show great improvements when they are included and taught in the general education setting along side their typically developing peers. This improvement is demonstrated not only in their academic skills, but their social skills and adaptive skills as well.
That being said, there are several barriers that prevent kids from being successful in inclusive settings. Inclusion is not something that happens by simply putting students in general education classes. There needs to be plenty of support for not only for the students, but also the educators, both general education and special education teachers, who are working together to educate their students. Inclusion has the potential for improving child outcomes, but there needs to be the proper structure and training in place to make it happen.
The Minnesota Department of Education’s Board of Teaching (BOT) recently reviewed their teacher licensure structure for serving students with exceptionalities. This review resulted from the community relating concerns to the BOT that the unique needs of the significant and growing number of students with autism were not being met within the previous license structure, which left most students with autism being served by teachers who have been prepared in another disability area. The BOT enacted several changes to their licensure structure based on their review, including the creation of a new disability specific license in autism in order to better prepare our next generation of teachers. I’m the coordinator of the Autism Licensure program at the University of Minnesota, which prepares future special education teachers with the content and skills they need to effectively work children with autism and their families. We also have an Autism Certificate program, designed primarily for related service professionals (i.e., speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, medical professionals, and social workers) and educational professionals who are not seeking a special education teaching license, but would like to gain additional skills and content knowledge about working with individuals with ASD.
These initiatives, coupled with the expanding body of research on autism education and an increased public awareness of autism, gives me hope for a brighter future for individuals with autism. With better information, more effective teaching techniques and more resources devoted toward autism education, I believe we will see great improvement in the years to come in the overall quality of education and in student outcomes.
Tips for Teachers and Parents Nurturing an Autistic Student
Here are a few simple practices and principles that can help both parents and educators create an environment that encourages both academic success and the emotional well being of both family and students.
Family collaboration is important. We really stress to our teacher candidates the important role that family members have in effective instruction for students with autism. It’s important to create these supportive family/professional partnerships.
Provide social support for caregivers. Raising a child is stressful; raising a child with a disability makes it exponentially more stressful. It’s important that families are kind to themselves and seek out support when they need it. Teachers also need to be aware and able to connect families with community support when needed.
Continue professional development. It’s a really exciting time for autism research. Given the number of responsibilities taken on by our teachers, it can be difficult to stay current on the latest research. Schools need to support teachers in their professional development and ensure that they are getting ongoing training in the most recent research or evidence-based practices. The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder is a great place for teachers and other professionals to go for resources and information.
Set high expectations. As a society we need to set higher expectations for our kids with autism. In general, we are doing better, but some of our more impacted students are not gaining access to the general education curriculum. I think that that the autism community would benefit from having higher expectations for what they can achieve, and providing appropriate supports that will enable students with autism to reach their fullest potential.
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