ASAT Responds to The Detroit News story, "Study: Michigan autism teachers need more training: experience, effective practices lacking, says a report from MSU"
Friday, September 16, 2011
Dear Mr. Lewis,
We are writing to you regarding your article entitled, "Study: Michigan autism teachers need more training: experience, effective practices lacking, says a report from MSU" (The Detroit News, September 13, 2011). First and foremost, thank you. At a time when so many journalists write in a glowing manner about autism treatments that actually lack any basis in scientific research, you have shared information that points to a serious problem: our teachers may not be doing right by our children with autism.
Let us be perfectly clear: if any one of us went to a doctor for heart-related symptoms and that doctor had little to no training in cardiology, we might be in trouble. Fortunately, we have medical specialties for patients to access specialized care as needed. Special education is intended to address the comprehensive educational needs of those children with disabilities who cannot be adequately educated in typical classrooms by general education teachers. Given that significant monies are directed to special education, it is not only our moral responsibility, but also our fiscal responsibility to ensure that such monies are used efficiently and effectively.
Teacher preparation, both with respect to graduate training and on-the-job training, must be evaluated carefully and your article reminds us of this important consideration. Just as an individualized education plan is written to comprehensively and precisely meet the needs of students with disabilities, teacher training protocols must do the same. It cannot be overstated that special education teachers charged with educating students with autism require specialized and unique training and coursework that would enable them to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities competently. As published research documents improved outcomes through evidence-based practices, special education teachers should have access to such information to further hone their skills and to improve their own outcomes with their students. Using another medical analogy, how unfortunate would it be if an oncologist did not update his or her skills in treating cancer and simply relied on the same methods year after year.
In your piece, you quoted Sheryl Brown, special education director in the Walled Lake School District, who touted that her teachers are well-trained and hold numerous certifications and degrees in the field of ASD. She stated, "In Walled Lake Schools, we use a variety of methodologies based on the individual needs of each student, which reflect best practices for students with autism." At first glance, this statement sounds spot on and suggests that special education should be individually tailored to each student. We agree in principle; however, all too often, when given license to "use a variety of approaches" we have seen some special education teachers do what they want, what they like, what is easiest, what is cheapest, and what they already know. For example, some districts continue to use techniques such as facilitated communication, an intervention condemned by numerous professional organizations. Our children deserve better.
It has been said that autism is a "fad magnet" and unfortunately, this can be evident in how schools approach the selection of their "variety of methodologies" to support their students with autism. Special education directors, teachers and parents should be aware that unsubstantiated interventions sap time and limited resources that could otherwise be used to promote skill acquisition and independence for a student with autism. As in the medical field, the best interventions for educating children with autism will be found through critical consideration of proposed treatments and a preference for those options that are grounded in scientific evidence. For instance, numerous studies have demonstrated that the field of applied behavior analysis offers well-established and effective teaching practices for students with autism.
Your article helps to shed light on a number of "broken aspects" of current educational practices here in the States:
- Resources are typically not allocated as early and effectively as they could be to lessen the costs over the span of an individual's education. Research has shown that students with autism who receive effective early intervention are better prepared for adulthood and that otherwise costly services may be lessened.
- Many students with autism spend significant amounts of time in school accessing interventions and therapies that lack scientific support and are of dubious benefit for the student.
- Paraprofessional teaching personnel are far too often shortchanged with respect to training in how to work with students with autism. Promoting classroom independence through the use of techniques such as judicious prompting, systematic shaping of skills and reinforcement of successful efforts requires considerable staff training.
- Many general education teachers are ill prepared to include students with autism in their classrooms and, therefore, are limited in their capacity to create a meaningful and successful experience for those students.
- Students with autism often exhibit challenging behaviors which can deleteriously impact their experiences in school. Teachers are often not well versed in how to assess these behaviors, understand their underlying purpose for the student, develop a comprehensive behavior plan, and ensure that that plan is adequately and consistently implemented.
- Finally, undergraduate and graduate training programs should look closely at the responsibilities of their graduates and assess if their coursework and practicums best prepare future teachers for the jobs they will assume. For example, future educators should participate in coursework that centers upon applied behavior analytic approaches in meeting the needs of students, including students with autism. This truly would be "best practice."
It is our hope that administrators will respond to these findings with an open mind, recognize that their district training should address gaps in the graduate education of their staff, adequately support their paraprofessional staff, and focus time and resources on those interventions with a scientific grounding. Children with autism - and their families - deserve nothing less.
David Celiberti, Ph.D., BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Mary Goward-Philips, BA
Media Review Committee, Association for Science in Autism Treatment