Impact Feature Issue on Supporting Success in School and Beyond for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Critical Skill Sets for Special Education Teachers Working with Students with ASD
Chris has a puzzling neurodevelopmental disorder formally diagnosed as Pervasive Developmental Disorder and more commonly known as Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are present in classrooms across our country, with a prevalence rate of 1 in 166 children (CDC, 2006). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates a continuum of education and service options in the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities. To meet this mandate is challenging because many regular educators do not have special education experience or education. And even experienced special education teachers may need additional preparation to work effectively with students who have ASD.
In response to this need for specialized teacher preparation in the area of ASD, Minnesota has proposed specific competencies for special education teachers working with students with ASD that may be applicable in any state. The competencies, modeled on the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC, 2000) common core for beginning special education teachers, were developed under a Minnesota Department of Education grant and are intended to do the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 1):
- Provide a common base of understanding that outlines relevant knowledge and skill competencies in ASD consistent with current promising practices and research.
- Guide the organization of staff development initiatives and selection of training topics.
- Influence the development of course-work and ASD certificate programs in institutes of higher education.
- Provide an option for staff to individually guide and document their ASD educational experience and expertise.
This article highlights some of the critical knowledge and skill sets identified in Minnesota’s competencies and illustrates their usefulness through the story of “Chris,” a composite of students whose profile mirrors that of many with ASD in schools today. Competencies in the areas of Foundations in the Education of Learners with ASD, Development and Characteristics of Learners with ASD, Assessment of Learners with ASD, Instructional Strategies for Learners with ASD,andCollaboration in the Education of Learners with ASDwill be discussed.
The competencies in the area ofFoundations in the Education of Learners with ASDare the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 2):
- Knowledge of the theories and research that provide the basis for special education and related services for individuals (birth-21) with ASD.
- Knowledge of legal issues that impact education and practice in the field of special education and related services for individuals with ASD.
- Knowledge of the impact of medical and neurological perspectives on the education of individuals with ASD.
- Skill in accessing information regarding theories, research, medical and legal requirements and their relation to current promising practices in education for individuals with ASD.
Using the illustration of Chris, in his school the administration recognized the importance of setting the proper foundation for his teachers by providing opportunities for acquisition of the knowledge and skills outlined above that are necessary to work effectively with him. The school obtained professional resources on ASD including journals and audio-visual materials. Professional development opportunities were provided in the school setting and opportunities to attend Autism Society conferences and local university courses were made available. By utilizing these competencies, the school laid the proper foundation to support inclusion for Chris.
The competencies in the area of Development and Characteristics of Learners with ASD are the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 2):
- Knowledge of early indicators of ASD in infants/toddlers, pre-schoolers, and school-age children.
- Knowledge of possible courses of development and outcomes in individuals with ASD from infancy to adulthood.
- Knowledge of the range of communication, social and behavioral characteristics, and coexisting conditions associated with ASD.
- Skill in articulating the early indicators, characteristics, and learning styles of students with ASD to parents and other staff.
Individuals with ASD share a consistent pattern of characteristics, but manifest them in different ways. There is a range of possible courses of development and outcomes in individuals with ASD. Chris entered kindergarten with undiagnosed ASD, but his teachers immediately recognized his individual learning differences. Education on the development and the characteristics of ASD gave them the tools to spot the early indicators and initiate an assessment (see next competency area). Because they had participated in university coursework on ASD, his teachers were able to understand the impact of the combined effects of his impaired communication skills, limited social cognition and interaction, idiosyncratic sensory behaviors, restricted range of interests, and unusual behaviors on his ability to learn. Since strategies that work for one student may not be effective for another, Chris’ teachers contacted his pre-school to gain information on strategies that they had used successfully with Chris. By utilizing these competencies, his teachers had the knowledge they needed to spot the early signs of ASD and develop a plan to assess his individual special needs.
Competencies in the area of Assessment of Learners with ASDare the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 4):
- Knowledge of strengths and limitations of instruments and procedures used to screen and evaluate for eligibility for special education services under the ASD category.
- Knowledge of state criteria for eligibility and comprehensive evaluation for students with ASD.
- Knowledge of the impact of cultural and linguistic diversity on the evaluation of individuals with ASD (i.e. social values, customs, language comprehension, etc.).
- Skill in using procedures and instruments to screen and evaluate for ASD eligibility and determine needs.
As mentioned earlier, Chris entered kindergarten with undiagnosed ASD, but his teachers spotted the early indicators. A team comprehensively evaluated Chris utilizing a wide array of instruments because of the limitations of any single instrument to evaluate ASD. Chris met his state’s ASD educational criteria for eligibility. He simultaneously received a medical diagnosis of Autism in addition to his two co-existing conditions – a seizure disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. By utilizing these competencies, his school was able to provide an accurate assessment and ensure he could receive services for which he was eligible.
Instructional Planning and Strategies
The competencies in the area of Instructional Strategies for Learners with ASD are the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 3):
- Knowledge of research-supported instructional methods and promising practices for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age individuals with ASD.
- Skill to implement research-based instructional practices and strategies appropriate for toddlers, preschoolers, and school-age individuals with ASD.
- Skill to consider assistive technology options for individuals with ASD (e.g. picture/symbol exchange communication systems, electronic devices, sensory equipment, visual schedules, and others).
- Skill to implement instructional programs that improve social skills and interactions between students with ASD, their peers, and adults across various settings.
- Skill to implement instructional programs that address transition needs of individuals with ASD (i.e., jobs and training, home living, recreation and leisure, community living, and postsecondary education).
- Skill to demonstrate the ability to accurately collect and interpret data to document progress on outcomes for students with ASD, and make necessary changes in programming when indicated.
Competency in these areas helped Chris’ teachers work more effectively with him in a number of ways. After Chris’ evaluation, his team collaborated to write his individualized education plan (IEP). Chris’ assessment results were interpreted to design appropriate interventions. The team planned how to implement individualized goals and objectives to address the core features of ASD based on his individual strengths and identified needs. The team met on a regular basis throughout the school year to ensure implementation of a range of research-supported instructional methods and promising practices to support Chris. During these meetings the team shared current research and other resources.
Examples of some specific strategies they were able to implement because they had access to necessary knowledge and skills can be found in the social and behavior areas. In relation to social interactions, Chris has a limited range of interests and perseverates on his obsessions instead of socializing with people. Utilizing education they received, his team implemented an instructional program to improve and foster social skill development through ongoing peer interactions, direct instruction, and role-playing in a variety of settings. When Chris began to display undesirable social behaviors, the school researched social interventions and utilized a story to promote social understanding and teach alternatives to undesirable behaviors.
In the behavioral area, Chris experiences a great deal of anxiety, which is common in ASD. When even small changes occur unexpectedly he becomes highly anxious and self-stimulates by flapping his hands. Because he has a lack of fear and does not understand danger, he sometimes puts himself into risky situations. The staff received training on methods and strategies specific to managing challenging behavior in ASD. The school psychologist performed a functional behavioral assessment for challenging behaviors that were disruptive in the classroom. Due to worries about Chris having a seizure, he would be removed from the classroom whenever he became agitated. The psychologist observed Chris in numerous settings, examining the function of Chris’ behavior and the possible communicative intent. Collaboratively, Chris’s team wrote a behavior intervention plan to teach him alternative skills through the use of positive behavior supports designed to prevent the development of interfering behaviors and decrease the need for reactive strategies. By utilizing these competencies, Chris’ school was able to help him gain skills that increased his time in the regular classroom, and enabled him to engage more with peers.
The competencies in the area of Collaboration in the Education of Learners with ASDare the following (Minnesota Autism Project, 2006, p. 5):
- Knowledge of a range of educational and service options for students with ASD.
- Skill in providing strategies and training for parents, paraprofessionals, and other school staff to work more effectively with individuals with ASD.
- Skill to communicate with outside agencies (e.g., private OT, speech/language, sensory integration services; doctors, psychologists, and others) working with the individual with ASD.
- Skill to share current research and other resources regarding ASD with parents and school staff.
In Chris’ situation, his collaborative team consisted of the school psychologist, therapists, regular and special education teachers, family, and outside agencies. Chris was the first child with a significant disability to be included in his neighborhood school. By utilizing these competencies, Chris’ collaborative team was able to access the knowledge and assistance they needed to respect his right to be included, and to make his inclusion work through a range of educational and service options.
Chris had a successful year. Towards the end of the school year, his team began working with his next year’s teacher to help Chris with the transition. Although originally apprehensive about his inclusion in the school, his teachers have found the experience to be rewarding. Over the year, they have become truly reflective practitioners who actively seek to strengthen their professional knowledge and skill with the support of the administration. They are knowledgable and skilled in ASD and understand how to meet Chris’ needs and learning style. Most importantly, they have developed a positive relationship with Chris.
The nature of teaching requires continuous growth in order to serve today’s diverse population of students. These ASD competencies outline relevant knowledge and skills consistent with promising practices and research. Administration can use these competencies to guide the selection of staff and organize professional development initiatives. In addition they can be used by individuals to guide their educational experiences and expertise.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2006). How common are Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)? . Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/asd_common.htm
Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). (2000). Common core knowledge and skills for beginning special education teachers. Retrieved from http://education.gsu.edu/scu-gsu/International_Standards/Council%20for%20Exceptional%20Children.htm
Minnesota Autism Project. (2006). Proposed competencies for special education teachers working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Retrieved from www.ecsu.k12.mn.us/documents/teachercompetencies.pdf.