Opinion
Special Education Opinion

Where Are the Autism Teaching Competencies?

By Emaley McCulloch & Janet Martin — September 20, 2011 4 min read
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States are no strangers to classroom standards. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002, the federal government required states to create teacher standards and place highly qualified teachers in every classroom.

Nearly a decade later, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers spearheaded the initiative to create common-core standards to “allow teachers to be better equipped to know exactly what they need to help students learn and establish individualized benchmarks for them.” Today, all but four states have adopted the common standards to improve math and English/language arts skills.

We like both initiatives. Setting the bar high is a good thing for all involved. We are, however, disappointed to see so few standards set for teaching competencies for those working in special education classrooms, and, more specifically, for those teaching children on the autism spectrum. In 2010, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that an average of one in 110 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder. According to the group Autism Speaks, government figures also estimate autism diagnoses are increasing 10 percent to 17 percent annually.

Even with these alarming numbers, only a handful of states have adopted autism competencies that provide training for educators. We believe the need for standardized competencies is urgent.

Here’s why:

There is agreement among experts in the field of autism that the sooner a student gets appropriate treatment, the more likely it is he or she will be able to mainstream into a typical classroom. This option could also mean cost savings for districts by placing more students in a typical classroom sooner. The Special Education Expenditure Project, conducted for the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, reported that students with disabilities can have expenditures as high as $20,095 per year—3.1 times higher than a regular education student. The key phrase here is that the student receives “appropriate treatment.”

Evidence-based autism interventions, also known as applied behavior analysis, build the behavior and social foundation needed to learn academics and pass state-mandated standardized tests. Yes, children with disabilities must participate in state tests as outlined within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the law currently known as No Child Left Behind. Until these children can control problem behavior and build functional language, they will not be able to learn basic math, science, or language arts.

Unfortunately, there is a severe shortage of qualified teachers to support students on the autism spectrum.

Only a handful of states have adopted autism competencies that provide training for educators. We believe the need for standardized competencies is urgent."

In the “National Assessment of IDEA Overview,” published in July by the Institute of Education Sciences, 46 percent of school districts reported that they could not find qualified special education teachers to work with students with autism. Fifty-four percent of districts also reported difficulty in finding qualified special education teachers to teach children with severe behavioral disorders—a common characteristic of autism.

How can states implement autism competencies for teachers?

The first step is to identify evidence-based autism-teaching procedures. The National Autism Center is a good starting point. It published the National Standards Project in 2010. Within this document, the center outlines 11 established autism interventions, including naturalistic teaching, modeling, pivotal response treatment, and behavior management—all methods of applied behavior analysis.

The second step is to properly train teachers and support staff to implement these autism interventions with fidelity. According to the National Assessment of IDEA, districts continue to utilize university coursework, alternative certification, and professional development to increase the number of qualified special education teachers. These are positive steps, but we feel they alone are not adequate.

Two states—Virginia and California—have created successful autism teacher competencies and training. Districts and schools that are interested in pursuing state autism competencies should look no further for ideas.

Virginia, which developed state competencies in partnership with the Virginia Autism Council, also created the Autism State-Directed Project, a voluntary measure to ensure teachers across the state received proper training in these evidence-based autism teaching strategies.

California also deserves mention. Not only is the state requiring all new teachers to take courses during college in evidenced-based autism teaching strategies, it also is requiring more than 25,000 veteran special education teachers to obtain autism training through local universities. If these courses were not completed by this past July, the educators would not be allowed to teach children with autism.

Our own organization, Autism Training Solutions, trained more than 1,000 educators in 20 states last year in applied behavior analysis, and conducted surveys with special education teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff in California, Florida, Hawaii, Utah, and Virginia. Overall, we found that these educators are seeking help. Autism-related training is not another hindrance in their already all-too-busy day. A survey conducted with educators in Virginia found that almost 90 percent of teachers recommended that their schools continue to utilize autism training.

Autism is not going away. Let’s work together to create autism teacher competencies and train teachers to apply these strategies inside the special education classroom. Nothing is going to change if we accept the status quo.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 21, 2011 edition of Education Week as Where Are the Autism Teaching Competencies?

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