Autism for Public School Administrators: What You Need To Know
Written by Tara Klein, MS Ed., BCBA
Building Behavior Solutions, LLC
The rate at which individuals diagnosed with autism is growing and, here in New Jersey, we have one of the highest prevalence rates (1 in 94 children diagnosed). With increased incidence, many public school districts are keeping students with autism in their public school district rather than sending them to specialized schools. Individuals with autism are frequently found today in regular education classrooms right alongside their typically developing peers. Students with autism who require greater support are educated in the public school environment in self-contained classrooms. With the influx of learners with autism who remain in the public school environments, it has become increasingly important to inform administration, child study team members, teachers, speech therapists, occupational therapist, paraprofessionals, and other staff members about autism and the specialized education that these learners will need. However, many school administrators, teachers, and other staff members have received little current education on the specific educational needs of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Elizabeth Neumann, along with Linda Meyer and Suzanne Buchanan from Autism New Jersey, recognized this issue and moved forth to write a booklet for public school administration containing accurate information about ASD. Ms. Neumann utilized the data collected from her master’s thesis to identify the information administrators need to know to create a quality educational environment for these learners within the public school district.
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) Overview
The booklet begins by providing information about Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders. The three diagnostic criteria areas are discussed: social skills, communication skills and restrictive/repetitive behaviors. The supports needed for individuals with ASD are further explained by directly indicating that these learners will require direct supports in all three areas, an important clarification given that, much too often, school professionals forget that individuals with ASD have deficits in all three areas and require support within each area. Often, many teachers and administrators look at the overall success of a student by how well they are doing in the areas of academic instruction. While academics and communication are typically addressed and taught, social skills instruction is often left out. The authors openly state the need for direct instruction and role play in the area of social skills and they explain that instruction must be provided to the staff members, students, and classroom peers in order for any activity to be socially meaningful for an individual with autism. The authors detail more specific suggestions in each of the three diagnostic areas. In the areas of communication, the authors explain that not only do individuals with ASD have difficulty expressing themselves, but that they also may have difficulty understanding spoken language. Specific strategies to ensure that learners with ASD can understand what is being asked of them are provided in the booklet. The booklet briefly touches upon how repetitive and stereotypic behaviors can impact the learning environment and addresses how motivation and reinforcement can play a vital role in successfully modifying these and other behaviors.
In this section of the booklet, the authors address the need for administrators to use scientifically validated strategies, utilize data collection procedures, and base educational and financial decisions on accurate, unbiased information. The authors provide detailed descriptions of evidence-based practice to help administrators gain an understanding of the elements of scientific-based research versus “research” that cannot be validated or replicated. The authors also touch upon the importance of ensuring that the research-based strategies be applied according to the protocols outlined with-in the supporting research literature, ensuring treatment integrity. Additionally, the booklet highlights the significance of collecting accurate data and analyzing the data to determine if the chosen treatment is indeed effective, therefore serving as a guide for instructional decision-making.
Resources for Administrators
Highlighted within this section are resources for administrators that could help identify effective, research-based strategies. The authors list resources about effective treatments such as the National Standards Project (National Autism Center, 2009), the Association for Science in Autism Treatment, The Road Less Traveled: Charting a Clear Course for Autism Treatment (Celiberti et al., 2004), Autism New Jersey, and Autism New Jersey’s Position Statement on Treatment Recommendations. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and Positive Behavior Supports (PBS) are cited in the booklet as the most effective treatment for individuals with ASD based on research to date. A helpful bulleted list is included within, detailing those treatments that are recommended, those that should be used with caution, and those that should be avoided entirely since they have been proven ineffective.
Supporting Your Schools
What to Look for in the Classrooms
In this section, several basics regarding the classroom environment and structure are discussed. The authors highlight possible supports in the physical environment that include increased structure, minimized distractions, and increased visual cues for tasks. The importance of having proper structure among staff is addressed, such as the importance of collaboration and consistency among all team members and the family. The authors also draw attention to the imperative continual cycle of “planning, implementing, analyzing, and revising (p. 10).” These four components are key to an effective learning environment for individuals with autism.
Components of Effective Inclusion/Functional Curriculum
“Ideally, inclusion takes place at the right time, in the right place, and for the right reasons (p. 10).” This statement best summarizes the information presented about inclusion. Furthermore, it is discussed that proper student support and staff accountability for student progress are major factors to ensure that the inclusion setting is effective. The authors stress the importance of increasing a learner’s independence, teaching functional lifelong skills in all curricular areas (functional academics, daily living, self-help, prevocational, leisure), and ensuring that we prepare them for their next setting and the skills that they will need into their adult life.
Addressing Challenging Behaviors
Often in school environments, staff and administration are faced with challenging behaviors of individuals with ASD, as well as other students. In response, the booklet outlines the importance of gaining an understanding of why the individual is engaging in the behavior and provides a brief overview of the benefits of a Functional Behavior Assessment. The authors stress the importance of providing training in behavior management to all staff members who are involved with the learner, discuss the value of teaching staff to manage a behavioral crisis, and highlight the use of proactive strategies to reduce problem behavior.
Support for Staff who Teach Individuals with ASD
Neumann and her colleagues address the role of administration and its impact on a successful program for learners with ASD. They note the limitations and challenges that the administration will face, but emphasize necessary program components. Staff collaboration, appropriate planning, lesson preparation, data analysis, access to the community and parent/professional collaboration are top factors noted for effective programs. Furthermore, the authors elaborate on the role of the administrative assistance for the staff within the classrooms serving individuals with ASD, adding that even frequently stopping by the classroom and listening to their needs and concerns are simple actions that can bring comfort to the staff members working within a classroom of students with ASD.
Best Practice Resources/Staff Training
Because it is important for administrators to know where to find accurate information, resources, and proper training for educating individuals with autism, the authors list several resources to which administrators can turn. These include Autism New Jersey and their related publications and resources, the National Research Council’s book Educating Children with Autism (2001) and the New York State Education Department’s Autism Program Quality Indicators. Ongoing professional development for all staff members is highlighted as a key ingredient for a successful program. Also discussed is the need for not only didactic (lecture-style) trainings, but also for hands-on support from professionals such as Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA). The authors emphasize the need for training, support, and supervision of paraprofessional staff members, since they play such a key role in the educational process within the classrooms. Lastly, it is suggested that all programs, classrooms, and staff receive evaluation to enhance effective feedback about the programs.
Summing it Up
In summary, the booklet reminds administrators about the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and outlines specific guidelines to follow when educating individuals with ASD. Additionally, it offers a bulleted summary specifying the core elements to the education of individuals with ASD based on a recent literature review. Autism for Public School Administrators: What You Need to Know provides a summary of important key facts about the education of individuals with ASD in public school settings within one booklet. It provides an overview of ASD, information on evidence-based practices, support needed within the school for individuals with ASD, and supports needed within the schools for staff teaching individuals with ASD. Overall, the authors openly discuss that staff members and other individuals involved in the instruction of a student with ASD must adapt their own behaviors in order to create a successful learning environment. This booklet is a great resource for public school administrators and it can be a good asset to other school staff and parents of individuals with ASD. It is with great hope that many of the school administrators in New Jersey have read (or will read) this booklet and that they were able to attend the information sessions presented by Ms. Neumann and Autism New Jersey. If public school administrators utilize this guide as a resource, it can be an invaluable tool!
If you would like a copy of this booklet or if you know a school administrator or someone who could benefit from this booklet, you can request a free hard copy or a free download at Autism New Jersey’s website, http://www.autismnj.org/Publications.aspx, or by contacting Autism New Jersey at 1-800-4-AUTISM.