Improving Autism Education

Monmouth’s new Autism Program Improvement Project (APIP) is enhancing training for teachers already tasked with educating students on the autism spectrum in five New Jersey school districts.

The number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise, and increasingly, these children are attending public schools. Unfortunately, many schools are ill-prepared to teach these students—especially those with more significant needs. We asked Stacy Lauderdale-Littin and Mary Haspel—the directors of APIP, which was instituted in 2016—how they’re improving the educational process for teachers and students alike.

What is the data telling us about all this?
Stacy Lauderdale-Littin: This year, the Centers for Disease Control came out with new data showing the national autism rate to be 1 in 59. That translates to more than half a million school-age children with autism in the U.S., and nearly all of those children are now being educated in our public schools. The numbers themselves speak to why the training we offer is so important.

Many children with autism end up in self-contained, or segregated, classrooms. What kind of preparation are teachers in these classrooms generally receiving? Are there national standards?
SL: They receive very little training, unfortunately, which makes it challenging to develop and implement appropriate individualized programming. And that directly impacts the efficacy of instruction and the progress of students. Behavior problems tend to be higher when instruction isn’t appropriate or aligned to students’ needs.
MH: And there are no national standards for teacher preparation, which means that every teacher enters the field with different skills, or very limited skills. Individual states have started to mandate specific autism certifications for teachers, but they’re not standardized across the country. In New Jersey, for instance, all you need to teach children with autism is a special education endorsement.

What kind of training do you o er the teachers you’re work- ing with in APIP
SL: Before we even begin training teachers, we assess them, and their districts, to see how they’re doing. When we first go into a district, we do a needs assessment for individual teachers through classroom observation, and then for the district as a whole, a global assessment. Our assessments are based on the Autism Program Environment Rating Scale (APERS), a checklist of various items like classroom design, acknowledgment of positive student behavior, and so on.

We also ask teachers about their proficiency in the implementation of current evidence-based practices—interventions that research has proven to be effective. We then create a checklist of things we plan to accomplish in the district, and we work with individual teachers to help them achieve those goals. We focus specifically on teaching three evidence-based practices that work together as a package: prompting, which is simply assisting a child to increase probability of a correct response; reinforcement, a way to increase desired behavior; and discrete trial training, a method of instruction that breaks a lesson down into a series of simple steps. These practices are at the core of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), a systematic approach aimed at increasing skill acquisition and reducing problem behaviors, which is commonly used with children on the autism spectrum.

One of the challenges of teaching an entire classroom of students with ASD is the fact that autism is a spectrum, and each child on that spectrum is likely to have very different needs. How does the training deal with that?
MH: The evidence-based practices we teach—there are 27 of them in all—are designed to meet the needs of students at various levels of functioning. Part of the training we offer is to help teachers identify each student’s particular areas of need and then match evidence-based practices to those specific needs.

How are teachers and districts responding to the program?
MH: Most are very receptive and incredibly grateful. And all the districts view the partnership as a positive, though you definitely see variability in the involvement of administrators. We have certain districts in which the administration is very involved, and these districts make large gains in the quality of their autism programs. We have other districts in which the administrators are less involved, and we see fewer gains in these districts. The challenge is to increase the involvement of that second group of administrators.

Do you hope to expand the pro- gram to additional districts?
SL: Yes, we do. One of our confounding issues is manpower—because there are only two of us working on this right now. It takes time, of course, to drive to a district, and once we arrive, we typically travel to at least two schools and sometimes as many as 20 within that district. So we’re in the process of revising some of our approaches to better utilize technology, in order to overcome barriers related to time and scheduling and increase districts’ access to the project. In doing so, we hope not only to support our existing districts but also to have the potential to add more in the future.
MH: Through the use of platforms like Google Hangout and Voice Thread, we can “see” what’s going on in classrooms without having to travel to schools. These platforms allow us to provide training, as well as feedback and support.

Both of you teach in the Department of Special Education at Monmouth University. Has your work with APIP had an impact on the way you prepare your students to teach children with autism?
SL: Our research with APIP has definitely informed some of our instruction here at Monmouth, and we’ve actually modified some of our courses. What we realized in the field is that many teachers aren’t implementing evidence-based practices with fidelity—in other words, they’re not doing things correctly or consistently, or both. So we started including a specific focus on that in one of our courses. Students begin by demonstrating an evidence-based practice to their classmates; then they have to implement it in the field. What’s really neat is that the course now includes a video component, in which students videotape themselves while implementing those practices in our partner districts.

In addition to founding more projects like APIP, is there anything that can be done to improve the quality of teaching in the autism classroom?
SL: For individuals interested in working with students with ASD, universities need to start offering more training that’s specific to autism. Autism is a spectrum and no two students look the same, so you really need to have a breadth of knowledge to meet their needs.

What would it mean to students if this kind of training were universal?
SL: Students would have consistency in the implementation of programming, and research suggests that this leads to faster acquisition of skills.
MH: It would also mean better student outcomes upon leaving school: increased independence, better ability to obtain a job, higher potential to develop relationships—in other words, a better life.