This morning, I read an article online at Education Week titled, "Where Are the Autism Teaching Competencies?" (1) This commentary calls attention to the fact that only a few states have set forth autism competencies for teachers. What is most interesting is that a few states, both Virginia and California, have successfully accomplished this task.
While Virginia has developed the competencies, they still have not required schools to use them. Across the country, most states haven't figured out how to create or adapt currently existing autism teaching competencies—or how to implement them so they are actually utilized by schools.
As a parent, I find the lack of autism teaching competencies across the states pathetic. Yet am I shocked that only a few states have autism teaching competencies? My answer is a resounding no. Many parents, including me, have personally experienced both teachers and principals who do not "get" autism. Conversely, I have been lucky enough to meet teachers and principals who do "get" autism, and there is a huge difference in the educational experience.
Why are competencies important?
A parent or non-teacher may ask, "What does it specifically mean to me that my state has no autism teaching competencies? Why is this so important?" Simply put, it is important for schools to understand and utilize best practices when teaching children with autism. With no specific state autism teaching competencies, schools and teachers are left on their own to decide what is best practice and evidence-based — if they are even looking at this issue at all.
For example, right now in Pennsylvania, any special education teacher can teach autism support. Yes, teachers still need to be highly qualified to teach. But districts can basically call a classroom an "autism support class" without the special education teacher having any specified experience or education in autism. The teacher does not need to demonstrate to the state that they understand autism, behavior, or social skills in order to start teaching an autism support class. It is falsely assumed that because a teacher has special education certification, he or she should be able to teach children with autism.
As a brief example of what can go wrong, I had a friend whose son has autism and was placed into his home school with minimal support. The learning support teacher informed my friend that she had no experience teaching kids with autism. Her son quickly declined in this placement, because the teacher had no knowledge about behavior, social skills, etc. Eventually, the parent regained FAPE for her child. But how do you really make up the time that was lost while the child suffered or regressed? It's not easy.
Taking it a step further, schools can have principals and special ed administrators who have no autism training or expertise. So what happens when decisions need to be made and the district liaison (principal, special ed administrator) has no true understanding of autism? What if the principal doesn't fully understand what autism behaviors look like? What if he doesn't understand the value of a functional behavior assessment? What if he doesn't understand social skills?
By not having autism competencies, both teachers and principals are making decisions without enough data, which inevitably leads to issues with the ability to provide FAPE. And if FAPE is not provided, the lack of autism teaching competencies can end up costing taxpayers more money in district lawyer fees when they end up in due process.
What else is needed to help teach teachers about autism?
While many special education teachers do get some coursework in autism and maybe workshops through intermediate units or districts, not many special education teachers come out the gate with real life experience in autism. And if a teacher plans on teaching kids with autism, they should have experience with our kids and families as part of their coursework. It is my opinion one of the best ways to educate someone on a topic is immersion, spending time with a family affected by autism. Teachers need to understand what autism looks like in the classroom but also what it looks like in the home.
Some of the best teachers my son has had over the years have been people who have worked with families, many times in the capacity as a Therapeutic Support Staff (TSS) who have been part of a home program working under a Behavior Specialist (BSC). At some point, before teaching, they worked in the home with the child and family perhaps implementing an Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) program and/or floor time approach, etc. They have observed the challenges of family life with autism. They see that our children are not just the person they are when they are in school. What a child does at school can influence their behavior at home and vice versa.
Learning autism at home
Over the summer, we had the great opportunity to volunteer our family time to a graduate student from West Chester University (WCU). WCU offers a Certificate of Specialization in Autism Spectrum Disorders. A requirement of this graduate-level course is for the student to spend 30 hours of time with a host family who has a child with autism.
As part of our experience, I was invited to speak to the class about what it is like for families and communication between schools and parents. For me, it was an honor to be able to help current and future educators see just a sliver of why parents are the way we are, why we are driven to help our kids, what daily life is like for a parent, and how schools and parents can best work together as a team. Honestly, I was so impressed by the fact that WCU recognized the importance of such a course about families. In the end, there is no better way to get to know autism than to observe and live it.
The fact is that while a teacher may be educating the child with autism in the school, the parent, teacher, and therapists should be a cohesive team. Teachers need to understand where the parent is coming from in order to communicate effectively. If a teacher has no specific coursework or experience working with families affected by autism, there is going to be a huge learning curve as they start teaching in an Autism Support Classroom.
For example, if a teacher has never actually participated in the implementation of ABA or other kinds of therapy with a child, how are they really going to understand what that approach means in the classroom? Frankly, it is one thing to learn about ABA or floortime, but it is entirely different to have actually done it or to have even observed it.
Autism isn't going away
Our children with autism will spend the majority of their lives as adults with autism. And considering the lack of adult services, it is in society's best interest to educate our children using best practices. In order to do that, we need to have an expectation that teachers who teach kids with autism understand autism and that includes using autism teaching competencies to measure that knowledge.
As I read through Virginia's Autism Teaching Competencies (2)today, they almost seem like common sense but then again, I am a parent living with autism. States need to take notice of how these competencies would greatly benefit teachers and school districts across the country—and eventually kids with autism. Sure, it looks like a lot to know, and it is. But that is the very nature of autism.
I have learned the hard way about what tools may or may not work for my son. An autism support teacher should have an "autism toolbox of learning" so to speak. If a child has severe behavior, then the teacher can pull out his or her tools about behavior, FBAs, sensory integration, positive behavior support plans, etc. If a child needs to work on social skills, the teacher can pull out his or her tools about teaching social skills, writing social stories or teaching theory of mind, etc.
As a final thought, I am very thankful that someone wrote a commentary on this issue at Education Week. I can't help but wonder what our experience to date would have been if all the principals and teachers had these competencies. Knowing the possible benefits, it is time that state departments of education send new autism support teachers to the teaching starting line with an expectation that they have the autism teaching competencies in place and the tools they need to bring to their students. In addition, states should look at how to help teachers get "real life" experience in autism via courses like the one offered via WCU. Experiencing autism is essential for beginning to understand autism. And one needs to understand autism in order to teach children who have autism.
(1) "Where are the Autism Teaching Competencies?" McCulloch E., J. Martin (2011) Education Week, (31)4, 27.