Interview with Elizabeth Neumann, MA, BCaBA from Autism New Jersey
Conducted by David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
President, Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Q: Elizabeth, as you know, the focus of your project is very congruent with ASAT’s mission and initiatives related to promoting awareness of science-based treatment; therefore, we are very grateful for this opportunity to interview and learn more about your experiences and discoveries. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how it led you to this area?
As Professional Services Coordinator at Autism New Jersey, I have provided trainings for school districts across the state. Over the years, we’ve seen in action what the research suggests: That a key to effective school programs is consistent support from administrators. Simply put, their actions can make or break their programs. They are the key decision-makers on budgetary, curricular, staffing, and scheduling issues that have a direct effect on students with autism spectrum disorders(ASDs)—yet they are often under-informed about autism and evidence-based practices. Instead, they often have to sort through the varied, passionate claims of parents, teachers, and therapists to determine which instructional strategies and supports to offer. Through no fault of their own, many administrators simply have not been prepared to meet the needs of this increasing portion of their student body. In my own personal experiences as a teacher, I was able to be a more effective teacher when I worked with administrators who understood how autism truly manifests and what best practices entail for this population.
Q: I could not agree more! I understand that your passion for this particular layer of program implementation led to your decision to choose this as focus for your master’s thesis.
Yes, when it came time to select a research topic for my master’s thesis, I wanted to focus on an area that could really make a difference for students with ASDs like the ones with whom I had worked. If I were going to spend a year on this project, I wanted it to have some practical results! I brainstormed with our Executive Director, Dr. Linda Meyer, and Clinical Director, Dr. Suzanne Buchanan, both of whom provided incredible support throughout this whole initiative. My goal was to administer a survey to learn more about administrators’ current levels of experience, knowledge, and skills so we could then work to meet their specific needs and take a top-down approach to maximizing educational services for students with ASDs.
Q: Can you tell us more about the survey participants? What was the process like recruiting respondents for your survey?
I was thrilled with the response…331 New Jersey public school administrators completed the anonymous electronic survey between October 1 and December 1, 2010. Approximately 14% were superintendents, 57% principals, and 29% supervisors or directors of special services. New Jersey has child study team supervisors for each county, and a few of them also participated. Respondents represented a cross-section of urban, suburban, and rural districts, and elementary, middle, and high school campuses. It was no surprise that 98% stated that their campuses currently serve students with ASDs. Although 2% were uncertain about the educational placements of these students, 80% reported having students in general education classrooms, 69% in resource rooms, 51% in learning/language disabilities classes, 50% in preschool special education, 44% in multiple disabilities settings, and 38% in autism-specific classrooms. A total of 45% of the administrators reported that they had prior teaching experience with learners with ASDs, but the amount and relevance of this experience varied greatly, 52% had no specific discussion of autism in their undergraduate or graduate coursework; for the majority of those who did, autism was only briefly mentioned in one class. It was further revealed that 60% had participated in at least one session of professional development on supporting students with ASDs at some point during their career, but again, the qualifications of the presenter and evidence-base of the content varied widely.
Q: Let’s talk a bit about the scope of your survey questions. What types of questions were included?
A: All 36 questions were specific to students with ASDs and relevant staff members. I began with demographics and professional background, and proceeded to items about autism, scientifically-validated instructional strategies, and supporting staff. With each multiple choice question there was an opportunity to write in additional information. There were general questions about autism, but more specific ones as well — instead of just asking if they knew about autism, I was in essence saying, “Okay, prove it!” For example, I listed popular interventions and asked which are scientifically validated. I wanted the survey to go beyond generic statements to assess their knowledge of how to facilitate students’ meaningful progress. I included these knowledge-based questions as I recognize the limitations inherent in survey research. Other questions had them rate their own effectiveness in different areas, and I concluded with a few open-ended questions.
Q: What facts about autism did they already know? What were the most critical facts they did not yet know?
A: Survey data revealed that 80% of the respondents correctly identified autism as a developmental disorder, 81% recognized that “Full inclusion has been proven effective for all students with ASDs” was a false statement, 97% agreed that providing alternative communication systems will not prevent a learner with autism from attaining vocal speech, and 99% were aware that visual supports are often helpful. However, one of the open-ended questions required them to list the three core deficits in ASDs. Only 25% correctly submitted social, communication, and behavioral difficulties as the diagnostic criteria. Many had one or two of the correct responses; 70% were aware of a social weakness, 64% recognized communicative difficulties, and 28% identified behavior problems (although only 12% specified that the behavior was restrictive or repetitive). But 18% could not answer the question at all, and another 13% just put question marks for some of the three responses. I’ll share more about my impressions of the findings later, but I believe that with increased understanding of the unique features of ASDs, administrators may be better prepared to make decisions on behalf of those students.
Q: Yes indeed, and the converse is worrisome. Decisions and resource allocations made by administrators without an accurate and comprehensive understanding will not likely serve students with ASDs well. Despite the apparent knowledge gaps, I suspect that most respondents felt confident in their abilities to support programming for students with ASDs. What were the results of the self-evaluation questions?
A: Self-evaluation responses indicated that 49% rated themselves “very effective” and 49% “somewhat effective” at evaluating and contributing to programs for students with ASDs. The percentages were almost identical when asked about their proficiency in supporting staff members who worked with students with ASDs (e.g., providing professional development and resources), 86% felt confident in making logistical decisions such as class size, student-teacher ratio, and paraprofessional assignments.
Q: As you stated earlier, self-reported ratings of effectiveness would need to be interpreted cautiously. With regard to evidence-based practices and science in autism treatment, what were your overall findings and your initial reactions?
A: Although a significant body of empirical evidence has established Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA ) as an effective intervention, 40% of participants believed that there is no proven methodology for teaching students with autism. One principal wrote, “If there was proven methodology, we would all be using it.” When asked if public schools are required to use scientifically-validated strategies, 69% said they were not. But federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act does mandate this. One director offered, “I would think that if this wasn't required we would have all kinds of treatments going on in classrooms.” Bulls-eye! With respect to the selection of instructional methodologies and supports that are scientifically-validated for students with ASDs, 41% rated themselves “very effective” and 52% “somewhat effective” and over half of those who added written comments explained that this was not their responsibility or that they rely on others for these decisions. They were then given a list of popular interventions and asked which are scientifically validated for autism; 80% recognized Applied Behavior Analysis, 53% Positive Behavior Supports, and 38% Verbal Behavior programming as correct answers (substantiated in empirical studies). However, 53% selected Sensory Integration therapy, 23% Auditory Integration Training or other listening therapies, 21% DIR®/Floortime™, and 18% Relationship Development Intervention as scientifically validated, when to date, these interventions either lack empirical evidence of their effectiveness for learners with autism or have been proven ineffective; 16% chose “can’t answer”. When asked about general practices that have evidence supporting their provision for students with ASDs, 92% chose structured environments, 91% individualized supports, 89% functional behavior assessment, 89% family involvement, 82% systematic instruction, and 73% specialized curricula. A summary of research findings from 1992-2002 found these to be core elements in the education of an individual with an ASD (as needed). Although one cannot ignore the financial and staffing constraints districts face today, it is crucial that administrators know how to identify best practices and see that they are provided by skilled professionals. I’ve seen too many examples of administrators approving $5000 for a new bubble tube for the sensory room without question, while insisting there’s no money available for professional development, consultation, or community-based instruction — it’s so important that they have credible information to help them manage the funds for their autism programs in ways most likely to benefit the students.
Q: Did your survey respondents share any concerns regarding their staff?
A: Just as students with autism have unique needs, teachers who instruct them face unique challenges as well: 41% of survey respondents had experienced difficulty in finding trained staff to hire, but only 12% had trouble retaining staff in their positions, 62% stated that their staff members had reported feeling overwhelmed or concerned about serving these students, and another 10% were not sure. Some administrators described these roles as “demanding,” “consuming,” “exhausting,” and “emotionally draining.” The open-ended responses about professional development ranged from “We contract for BCBA services and hold training and support sessions for staff every Friday afternoon” to “Professional development for our faculty and staff is a glaring need.”
Q: What about working with parents of students with autism?
A: When asked how their relationships with these parents compare to relationships with parents of children with other special needs, 73% reported no significant difference, 16% described the relationships as more positive, and 11% as more negative. Yet almost 50% were aware of autism-related cases in their district that went to mediation or due process.
Q: What did you learn from the open-ended responses?
A: You know, there were a few who came across as “We’re doing just fine” (and maybe they are!), but I was pleased to see that most seemed genuinely interested in supporting these students and staff and in learning more. Of course there is a limitation to relying too heavily on survey research in the absence of direct observation. In many instances, several participants reported that they chose answers as required to proceed through the survey but were unsure of the accuracy of their responses. A few made blanket statements such as “We provide special education as in-class support within the general education classroom,” but others reflected more individualized needs and services. The survey item related to inclusion generated a lot of comments: 80% of the 70 write-ins stressed that inclusion was effective for some or many but not all students. Some pointed out that some students need more intensive ABA intervention or a functional life skills curriculum, or that certain prerequisite skills should be mastered before students can learn in inclusive settings. Some also qualified their responses by writing that students will only be effectively served if supports are in place or that sometimes out-of-district placements are necessary.
For the question, “What do you feel would maximize your programs that involve students with ASDs?”, professional development was the priority for 51%; some specified that they meant not just more training, but that it should be ongoing, effective, and provided for all staff. “Consistent professional development is the most critical component for success of my students,” stated one principal. The second greatest concern (20%) was funding: 10% expressed the need for more support for teachers, including behavioral supports and time to collaborate, plan, and be mentored, 8% wanted additional parent involvement and collaboration, and 6% saw the need for increased time with consultants. When asked to share any final thoughts, some expressed very positive statements such as “I very much enjoy working with my students with ASDs as well as the amazing teachers and paraprofessionals.” Others expressed their appreciation for the study, for reasons such as “It helped me remember some key points that I had forgotten” and “[Autism] is going to be an ever growing issue.”
Q: What information were they interested in learning more about?
A: The majority reported that they were interested in learning anything that could help. From the following choices, 68% wanted information on supporting teachers, 68% effective teaching strategies, 58% recognizing interventions with research support, 57% supported inclusion, 54% assistive technology, and 53% educational needs of students with ASDs. Hopefully, getting these leaders autism-specific information and strategies will improve the overall educational experiences of students with ASDs.
Q: As you mentioned above, this is an inherent issue with self-report data, as stated interests do not necessarily translate into behavior. How have you been able to apply these findings?
A: Through the partial support of an Autism Speaks Family Services Community Grant, Autism New Jersey offered ten free half-day workshops specifically tailored to this audience. Dr. Meyer and I worked with 350 administrators at these sessions (and hundreds more expressed an interest). The survey results guided us to focus on practical application of the following topics:
- Understanding autism and students’ complex educational needs;
- Maximizing resources by identifying evidence-based practices;
- Supporting staff of diagnosed students in all placements across campus; and
- Providing an extensive list of resources.
We directed them to ASAT’s website, the National Standards Project report, and NY’s Autism Program Quality Indicators among others. Our workshop evaluation forms show an average rating of 96% overall satisfaction, and quiz scores showed an increase from 42% on the pretest to 83% on the posttest. We also created a publication, Autism for Public School Administrators: What You Need to Know, which was sent to all special services directors in New Jersey and all workshop registrants. Free copies are available at www.autismnj.org or 800.4.AUTISM. It has been so encouraging to see the administrators’ desire to maximize their offerings to students with ASDs, their families, and the school professionals, and we hope for additional funding to continue and expand this initiative.
Q: Elizabeth, thank you so much for sharing information about your research. As you know, we are highlighting your publication in this issue’s Consumer Corner column. It takes a village to create and maintain effective and meaningful educational programs for students across the full continuum of ASDs. Supporting and engaging administrators and appreciating their influence is essential. Thanks for sharing the references below.
Callahan, K., Henson, R. K., & Cowan, A. K. (2007). Social validation of evidence-based practices in autism by parents, teachers, and administrators. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 678-692.
Horrocks, J. L., White, G., & Roberts, L. (2008). Principals’ attitudes regarding inclusion of children with autism in Pennsylvania public schools. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 1462-1473.
Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18, 150-165.
McKelvey, D. M. (2008). Relationships between attitudes of school-based administrators and inclusion practices of students with autism/Asperger’s syndrome. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Phoenix, Phoenix.
Smith, M. K., & Smith, K. E. (2000). “I believe in inclusion, but…”: Regular education early childhood teachers’ perceptions of successful inclusion. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 14, 161-180.
Stanovich, P., & Jordan, A. (1998). Canadian teachers’ and principals’ beliefs about inclusive education as predictors of effective teaching in heterogeneous classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 98 (3), 221-238.
Twohig, B. J. (2000). Inclusive practices used by principals and their staff to facilitate the integration of students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.