A Lack of Autism Training
date, my graduate student extern (referred to as "student teacher" from
here on out for the sake of convenience) has been with me for two weeks now.
I'm hoping she has learned a lot so far, as I know I have learned things from her already. Having a student teacher really has caused me to do some self-reflecting on
my own therapy and what I could be doing better to help my students.
However, that is a blog topic for another day.
I attended graduate school (same one as my student teacher) more than a
decade ago, I had only ever met a handful of students with autism.
I had little to no undergraduate and graduate training on autism. The only time I can remember it coming up was briefly in my
graduate-level preschool and elementary language disorders classes.
Since the prevalence of autism has increased so dramatically since my
days in graduate school, I thought for sure that the
subject of autism would certainly be included in the graduate-level
curriculum. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I was completely surprised - no, more like
shocked - to hear from my student teacher regarding her lack of training in autism.
She told me that many other students in her graduate program who are
now student teaching in the schools expressed the same concerns.
The sheer number of students with autism on school-based caseloads surprised many. Between 25 percent and 30 percent of the students on my caseload have autism. These students range from non-verbal, severely-impaired students
in specialized classroom placements to students with Asperger's syndrome who
participate in the regular education setting for all academics. One of
the other SLPs in my district has at least 80 percent
of her caseload made up of students with autism. When I first started working in the schools, I don't think I had any students with autism on my caseload until my second or third year (early 2000s). However, each subsequent year after that the numbers increased.
I use a variety of therapy models/approaches/philosophies when working with my students with autism. My student teacher wasn't familiar with most of them. Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)? Touched on in an AAC class. Verbal behavior? Never heard of it. Talkies® by Lindamood Bell? Nope. Michelle Garcia Winner? Social thinking? An unfamiliar person and
an unfamiliar concept.
I certainly am not faulting my student teacher
for her lack of knowledge of therapy approaches for students with
autism. My job as her cooperative teacher is to,
well, teach her. So far I've done my best to give her a "crash course"
on autism therapy approaches and philosophies.
She has observed me working with many students with autism so she has now seen all of the methods I mentioned above.
I've explained my therapy and reasoning behind what I'm doing while I'm doing it.
I've answered all of her questions to the best of
my knowledge and ability. In addition, I've had her read handouts and
look at resources online to expand her knowledge.
Please note that I am in no way faulting my
alma mater for this. I loved both my undergraduate and
graduate programs and certainly learned a lot! It just shows me that
there still is a disconnect between what is taught in "school" and what
things are like in the "real world."
My college-level autism training occurred almost exclusively through undergrad and graduate "student teaching"
assignments. I remember being introduced to the idea of PECs, though I
don't think anyone referred to the approach as such at the time. The majority of my training in the area of autism has occurred
"on the job" while working with students and through professional trainings.
(There are too many to list, but just to provide a very brief sampling for you,
over the years I've done the following: I've seen
Michelle Garcia Winner twice; attended at least two different trainings
on verbal behavior; received training on how to administer the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS); and attended a one-day Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication-Handicapped Children, or TEACCH, training).
I've since been in contact with the university graduate extern
supervisor to express my concerns, and my constructive feedback was
taken positively and greatly appreciated.
Although the reality is that we can't learn everything we need to
know in graduate school and learn a lot "on the job" and through
trainings, I think the subject of autism needs to be addressed at the
university level. Even for SLPs who don't want to work in schools or want to work
exclusively with adults, the reality is the children with autism of
today will become the adults with autism of tomorrow.
love to hear some reader feedback on this topic! For newer grads
working in the schools - have you had any graduate coursework on autism?
If so, what did you learn? Was it a whole semester? If not, how was it addressed, if at all, in your coursework?
For "older" grads (like me!), how did you get your autism
training? When did you first start seeing students with autism on your
school caseload? Feel free to respond here or on the ADVANCE