In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that one in 68 school-age children are living with autism — a meteoric spike from 15 years ago, when the prevalence was about one in 150 children.
“The reality is that most teachers at some point are going to have a kid with autism in their classrooms,” said Heartley Huber, assistant professor of special education at William & Mary. “And yet, most teachers report that they don’t feel sufficiently confident in their ability to provide support and instruction to students with autism.”
With a new, nine-credit certificate in autism, the W&M School of Education is trying to change that. The post-baccalaureate program, which will be available in the fall, is designed to better prepare educators for supporting students with autism in an effective way.
“There’s a lot more publicity today around providing support for students with autism,” said Huber. “I think because of that teachers have gone from not knowing what they don’t know to being much more aware and wanting to learn more.”
The program, which is open to current teachers as well as any professional who engages with students with autism in a school setting (such as physical therapists or guidance counselors), builds off of the School of Education’s current offerings surrounding students with generalized developmental disabilities. Two existing classes on collaboration and characteristics of students with disabilities will join a new course — which teaches advanced classroom management and social-emotional supports — to round out the program.
“The certificate program will include instructional and behavior management strategies,” said Huber, who led the charge to implement the program. “But it’s really about looking at the supports available academically, behaviorally and socially and thinking about how all of those pieces can come together to create a more meaningful classroom experience.”
In Huber’s own research, she’s found that not only means utilizing adult supports, but also the student’s own classmates through peer support arrangements. These involve identifying students in a general education classroom to serve as study buddies and friends, which normalizes the classroom experience for students with autism.
“We’re very aware, especially in the special education program, that the needs of students with autism are different, but they’re in many ways the same, too,” said Huber. “Kids are kids, and they all have similar desires for social connections, social interaction in the classroom, and even friendships, even though they might not express it in the same way.”
An important part of the program is for students to witness these differences and similarities firsthand. In addition to coursework, 15 hours of fieldwork — which can range from observing a classroom to tutoring a student with autism — will be required for completion.
“It’s really about exposure — getting to know an individual on the spectrum and learning about them as people,” said Huber. “Because it’s easy to talk about a disability in the abstract, but when you have a face to put with that it changes your perspective.”
Huber hopes the certificate will provide school professionals not only with a new perspective, but with the resources needed to comfortably help students on the spectrum learn and grow in the classroom and in their communities.
“Hopefully by giving educators this focused training they’ll be better equipped and will feel more confident when working with students on the spectrum,” said Huber. “Beyond that, the hope is that they’ll be able to become experts in their schools and can then pass that knowledge onto other educators.”