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Adapting K12 for Students with Autism

Academic and behavioral programs in schools.

Enter “teaching students with autism” in Google, and more than 8 million results pop up instantly. Is it any wonder public school administrators, not to mention parents, are overwhelmed with the task of educating children on the autism spectrum?

Educators are learning, however, that there are scientifically proven treatments and protocols that can help them meet federal and state requirements, stretch budgets, avoid litigation and assist families who must continue educating students long after the last bell rings. The National Autism Center’s National Standards Project, the most comprehensive report of its kind, researched 775 studies before identifying 11 established treatments and 22 emerging treatments to best teach children with autism from 3 to 22 years old.

“The purpose was to identify the behavioral and educational treatments that had quality science behind them,” says National Autism Center Executive Director Hanna Rue. “These are evidence-based treatments that are part of larger evidence-based practices.”

But implementing these practices is yet another challenge for K12 administrators facing limited budgets and growing need—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 1 in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder—as they strive to find creative ways to satisfy parents and taxpayers while serving students. Employing and training special ed teachers or paraeducators—particularly expensive if one-to-one treatments are provided—and purchasing specialized materials or programs are just some of the extra costs that could affect districts as they go about educating children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

“There isn’t a set way of delivering services, because each student is different,’’ explains Kay Seale, director of special education at Brockton (Mass.) Public Schools, which the National Autism Center identifies as being especially effective in educating students with autism. “Each student has a specialized plan that targets the specialized instruction that students need.”

And consultant Paula Kluth, who advocates for and has written extensively on educating students with autism in inclusive classrooms, adds: “There’s something that’s often heard in my field. ‘If you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.’ ”

The Law’s Restraints

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act requires states to provide disabled students a free and appropriate public education that meets the child’s unique individual needs. The “least restrictive environment” is to be provided, and federal grants support early intervention programs.

“Autism is not any different from the other 12 categories recognized as disabilities under the IDEA,” Alabama-based attorney Julie Weatherly says. “We’re required to provide a program for all students with disabilities that enables them to receive some educational benefit. It’s weighing and balancing how best to divvy the very limited resources.”

BrocktonThrough her company, Resolutions in Special Education, Weatherly spends about half her time training educators to follow legal requirements—such as transportation, parent counseling or occupational therapy, depending on the child’s Individualized Education Plan—and the other half defending districts from lawsuits alleging a failure to meet special education regulations.

“Most of the time it boils down to methodological disputes,” Weatherly says. “Courts will reject a [claim] as long as the school district shows its methodology can provide educational benefit for the child. ... Another important step in defending a program is to provide parents with support, not respite care, but some sort of counseling and training to help them carry over into the home what’s going on at school.”

Consider Brockton schools and Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, in which family support programs feature monthly workshops for caregivers and services to help pupils transition easily between school and home. “Litigation is not a major issue, (because) we try hard to be proactive,” Seale says. “For parents who are very concerned about their child or need a lot of support, we have monthly progress meetings in addition to IEP meetings, sometimes with a consultant or special ed administrator to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

KluthStaying informed is key as well. “The most important thing schools can do is continue to stay on the cutting edge of what research says is effective,” Weatherly says.

Least Restrictive Setting

Successful districts implement effective treatments as part of a variety of methodologies, which include separate classrooms; mainstreaming; and inclusion/co-teaching. Inclusion and co-teaching are gaining in popularity as administrators seek to provide the least-restrictive environment, which often is the most cost-effective—and beneficial far beyond the student with autism.

“Co-teaching, we are finding out, profits kids with disabilities and kids without disabilities,” Kluth says. “We have to stop making things too ‘special.’ There was one school that actually had a budget item for special ed kids to have pizza with general ed kids one day a week. Why not have all the kids eating together every day?”

This all circles back to the inclusion movement of the 1980s, following The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. This law, later changed to IDEA, requires that students with disabilities be served in the least restrictive environment. “For students who can be served effectively in general education classes, their life outcomes—socially, vocationally, and academically—are going to be much better than for students in a separate class,” says Robert Putnam, senior vice president of school consultation at the May Institute, which serves individuals with ASD and works with public school systems, including Brockton. The National Autism Center is part of the May Institute.

Putnam points to Brockton schools, where elementary classes have dual-certified staff who teach all core subject areas. And middle and high schools have support staff co-teaching with a general education teacher. “Brockton has been very successful including their students in general education,’’ Putnam adds. “That’s important because autism is a social pragmatic disorder, so the more opportunities these students have to interact with other students, the better they are able to develop those skills.”

Mary Kealy, assistant superintendent for pupil services for the Loudoun County district, agrees. “One of the best approaches is to use inclusive practices,” Kealy says, “and keep students in the least restrictive environment for all or some of their day, where they get positive role models for language, behavior and social skills. We also want them to be exposed to the general education curriculum at a higher level.”

That exposure often benefits the masses. “It’s time to talk about using resources in smart ways to serve all students,” Kluth says. “Special ed kids bring technologies that other kids have not seen before. They bring different perspectives that can be really valuable. We should be creative about serving everybody.”

Training for Autism

Making all this happen requires teachers and paraeducators trained in working with children with autism. These students could be anywhere from non-verbal with multiple disabilities to high-functioning. “It’s really about building capacity among staff,” Kealy says.

JWeatherlyLoudoun County has an extensive professional development program for teachers and assistants. All teachers complete instructional modules on evidence-based practices and specific competencies. Many new autism-specific teachers participate in the year-long course “What Every New Special Education Teacher Must Know.” Mentor-coaches provide in-class support for social skills and behavioral plans and instructional strategies. Autism resource teachers provide school-based training for all staff on strategies for supporting students with autism across school settings. And all autism teachers and paraprofessionals participate in annual training in the Mandt System, a comprehensive, integrated approach to preventing, de-escalating and intervening when behavior poses a threat to the student or others.

Many training modules are online for accessibility. “We want to have a comprehensive array of services, but we want it to be consistent,” Kealy says. “We want all students to have the same access to services. If teachers and assistants are properly trained, they’re able to provide those services.”

However, it’s not always that simple. “The biggest challenge for administrators, other than getting the appropriate training and ensuring supervision, is funding,” says Marilyn Likins, director of the National Resource Center for Paraeducators, based at Utah State University. “If states, personnel development centers, universities or districts do not or cannot provide access to appropriate training, many times, different sources of potential funding can be secured through federal, state, or local grants.”

In Utah, districts can request free training through the state’s education office or personnel development center. Some districts in Utah and other states arrange training through university projects, which can provide experts to train a group of paraeducators on site, she adds. At Loudoun schools, staff is trained as trainers in the Mandt System so they can train hundreds of district staff members, Kealy says. “This is why we call it a capacity-building model that affords us sustainability within our schools. This training is embedded in the roles of many staff in the district.”

Regardless of the district’s ultimate approach to training, Likins says, administrators should plan ahead. “Rather than waiting for a child to show up on their doorsteps, an administrator really ought to determine what their current paraeducators’ knowledge and skills are, and investigate training options within their state. It’s not very cost-effective to bring an expert in from outside the state. Typically, states have the expertise right there,” Likins says. “They also should work with parents’ organizations. It really needs to be a collaborative effort to meet the needs of the child both within the school and the home.”

Bright Future

As the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders grows, so does the research and information available to district administrators. And that makes the future bright, says Kluth. “The field is exploding. Yes we’re seeing more kids, but that means more people personally know someone with autism,” Kluth says. “So many of these children bring so many gifts. They’re not only going to show us uniqueness that might inspire different teaching, but these kids are really going to make great contributions to the community, and that pleases me.”

Says Kealy: “Special education services are expensive and it can be a challenge explaining why it costs so much. But our goal is to get kids to graduate and have opportunities for secondary education, training or employment so they can be successful when they leave us. And they’re able to do that.”