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Speech in the Schools

A Lack of Autism Training

Published January 18, 2012 9:15 AM by Valerie Lill
To 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.

When 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. 

I'd 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 Facebook page!

7 comments

Valerie,

Great article!  

Another resource that should absolutely be embraced is talking and working with the parents of these kids.  

Grad schools cannot come close to educating these kids effectively enough compared to the knowledge the parents have.  You see, the school day does not end at 2:30 or 3:00 M-F in the home of an autistic child.  It is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Parents (like myself, lol) have become self educated in all areas of this disorder, including education, curriculum, treatment plans, etc.  Plus, they are the expert when it comes to there children.  

Befriend the parents.  You'll be amazed.  

I have learned more in the last 6 years self educating and researching myself then my ENTIRE educational experience, including college!  

But the difference is I had my child as my motivator!

I'm quite the smarty pants, lol!!!!

Love the teachers!!!!

Tiffany B.

TIFFANY January 19, 2012 7:57 PM
Douglassville PA

I graduated in May of 2009. I truly enjoyed my grad school experience, however, I also did not feel prepared to work with the Autism population after graduation. I remember that we were basically taught what Autism was and about the spectrum (low-function autism-Aspergers). I do not feel that we were really taught any therapy approaches or how to keep data when working on social skills. I do agree with others who say that an SLP should be responsible and continue learning daily, but feel that grad schools should prepare us a little more for the real world. I was very shocked at the amount of Autistic students I encountered after entering this profession. I still struggle daily to create good social goals that you can easily keep data on and track progress. I really wish that the grad school I attended would have discussed goals, data tracking, and therapy approaches that were effective in working with Autistic students.

Kristin Hatcher January 19, 2012 1:28 PM

Autism training, as noted, is much needed.  Also critical and rarely taught is how to deliver the components of the IDEA and best practices in education.  Assessment--how do you know exactly where a child is functioning?  In autism, this can be highly variable across domains.  How do you write MEASURABLE goals?  Johnnie getting better isn't measurable.  Why don't teachers learn how to write goals???? Assess progress?  Investigate validated and research-based approaches?  Employ them?  Reasses them?  Teaching assessment, data collection and analysis is essential to the teaching profession across the board--general and special education.  If teachers understand how to critically evaluate themselves and their students, it will help to drive them to interventions and programs that work.  

Liz January 19, 2012 7:30 AM

Thank you, Kathie. You and Lisa both make excellent points. Yes, the universities do need to teach more, but as Lisa said, we SLPs also need to take initiative to learn more.  That doesn't just apply for autism, but any aspect of our job! I feel like I learn something new almost on a daily basis.  We school-based SLPs should never stop learning!

Valerie Lill January 18, 2012 7:24 PM

I graduated with my masters in 2010.  My program had a semester-long course in Autism.  It was an elective but many of us took the course.  We learned about autism differential diagnosis, evaluations to use, and many, many treatment approaches and the evidence behind them.  We also had many clients in our clinic with autism spectrum disorders.  Every graduate student was placed in a social language group (which were offered for 3 different age groups) at some point and many of us also had younger and/or more severe children in dyads or individually.  I also sought out other opportunities to learn more at conferences.  While of course every child is different and I am learning every day, I felt prepared to jump into my job, which includes preschoolers in a categorical autism program and mainstreamed children with ASD.  

Laura January 18, 2012 5:50 PM

You hit one of my soapbox topics, Valorie! A grad school should not teach a specific program but it is their responsibility to expose students to a variety of what is available to this "world of ASD." I agree with Lisa (comment above) that the student needs to take responsibility as well. I also feel that student teaching and clinical hours should allow access to great SLPS like YOU. Grad students should follow good blogs, read, and invite guest PARENT speakers into their programs. I speak in Las Vegas at UNLV and the Community College as a parent and SLP -usually invited by a student. There is such a need. Let me tell your grad student how lucky she is to have someone like you who cares about her student teaching experience SO MUCH. Fill her full of the names and resouces in the field of ASD ~ we know she'll need them. Thank you for this blog.

Kathie Harrington, ADVANCE Autism Spectrum Blogger January 18, 2012 2:57 PM
Las Vegas

I have been in the field for several years now, same alma mater, but I have never felt unprepared to work with autistic children. I currently work with individuals on the spectrum ranging from 2 yrs to adulthood.  Graduate school is already so crammed that  I honestly do not see how they could provide more information on autism.  As with other diagnosis, a lot of the responsibility for treatment programs falls on the graduate to research for themselves.  I think if a student knows they will be entering employment with autism on the caseload, they need to research research research.  Also, program fads come and go and I don't think it's the responsibility of the grad schools to emphasise one over another.  At each age level there are tons of methods that are "proven to be the best."  Also, so many of the programs require training from the developmenters themselves in order to use them properly. I'm not sure how they could be taught in more detail at the graduate level.  Yes the grad schools should be mentioning them, but then it should the students taking the bull by the horns to learn more about the what and how.  

Lisa January 18, 2012 9:54 AM

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    Speech in the Schools
    Occupation: School-based speech-language pathologists
    Setting: Traditional and specialized K-12 classrooms
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