WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – The dozen or so buildings that make up the core of the small, tree-dotted campus of Saint Joseph College create the ideal environs to get lost in a world of books, art and ideas.
But while the women’s college’s grassy quad and brown brick Georgian architecture may seem distant from reality, one of its newest academic offerings is firmly rooted in the here-and-now: helping teachers and parents understand autism spectrum disorders as diagnoses, if not the rate of incidence, continue to rise.
Like those of a growing number of programs, the focus for St. Joe’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Initiative is not on preventing new cases or finding medical treatments to block symptoms, but on acknowledging that millions of children and adults around the world live with the reality of autism every single day. The initiative offers a five-course graduate certificate sequence for teachers, school psychologists and other experts who work with autistic children, as well as a four-day, $200 summer program and public lectures that are open to parents and teachers. The college has also just launched a five-course certificate program in applied behavior analysis, a technique used to work with autistic children, which is the first in Connecticut to prepare students for the national certification exam.
“Regardless of the science that comes out,” said John Molteni, director of the ASD Initiative, “all [teachers] can do at this point is say, ‘what are we going to do for them?’” For Molteni and his colleagues at St. Joe’s that means “helping the people who are going to be helping these children at whatever level, and adults working with other adults who are on the autism spectrum.”
Other colleges, too, have in recent years launched academic programs related to autism. Caldwell College launched a Ph.D. program in applied behavior analysis this summer, and Arcadia University introduced a graduate certificate program in the same subject.
The college has a long history of serving children with special needs. The campus has been home to the Gengras Center, a K-12 private school for children with developmental disabilities, since the 1960s. Students whose needs can’t be met in their home districts travel from throughout Connecticut and southern Massachusetts for the mix of education and therapy the school provides, said Michelle Lestrud, the school’s assistant director.
Gengras has 127 students, about 50 of whom are autistic. When Lestrud first started at the school about 10 years ago, “we only had about 10 students on the spectrum at any one time.”
In addition to serving its students, Gengras is a lab school for St. Joe’s undergraduate and graduate students. Students studying education, nursing and psychology, among other subjects, conduct research and get work experience at the school.
A few graduate students work as assistants at the school and get tuition assistance in addition to a salary. “We get a very high quality of teacher’s assistants who work here for three or four years while working on a degree,” she said.
“Just in general,” she added, “we benefit a great deal from being on the St. Joe’s campus.” Gengras classes take trips to the campus pool, gym and track. Students eat some meals in the undergraduate cafeteria and college “students and staff are very familiar with us and friendly to us.” Some high school-age students at Gengras work part-time jobs in the St. Joe’s mailroom, copy center and library.
The longstanding link between the college and the world of special education was key in starting up the ASD Initiative. “We’re mutually beneficial to each other,” Molteni said. “Because of Gengras and the training opportunities it offers, we had a lot of visibility across the state and have been able to take advantage of that as we’ve developed.”
The program is one of just a few in Connecticut. It was approved by the state's Department of Higher Education in the spring of 2008, and courses began that summer. Nine students finished the five-course sequence in the spring of 2009 and another half dozen are set to finish the certificate this fall.
Teachers as Students
The first class in the certificate program – and a prerequisite for all the rest – is on the nature and characteristics of autism. The other courses are on communications and technology, managing behaviors, assessment and the application of instructional strategies.
“Teachers want to know how to get through to autistic students, but often don’t know how,” said Kathleen Whitbread, associate professor of education and director of special education. “Education graduate programs, even special ed programs, touch on so many issues that teachers get very little if any training” on autism. The program’s courses are meant to give them that training.
Its students are a mix of graduate students (the certificate can be counted as half the credits toward an M.A. in education or special education at St. Joe’s) and teachers who already have master’s degrees and want to learn more about autism.
For new teachers it’s “an opportunity to prepare them before they’re in the classroom,” Whitbread said, while teachers already in the classroom “get these skills they need, especially as the greater prevalence of autism and need for inclusion is putting more autistic kids into regular classrooms.”
Though “they may not know everything about children on the autism spectrum,” Whitbread said, “they will have teaching strategies and behavioral strategies that they’re competent in and know where to go for support.”
As rumors swirl about whether vaccinations can cause autism and small studies suggest that certain diets can “cure” it -- theories scientists are generally quite skeptical of -- it’s become increasingly important “for teachers to understand and evaluate research,” she said. “When you read a study it can inform what you do in the classroom, but you’ve got to make sure it really has been tested well. You don’t want to waste years of a kid’s life on something that doesn’t work.”
Elizabeth Salvatore, a teacher at Willard Elementary School in Berlin, Conn., earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Joe’s in 2006 and began teaching and taking classes toward an M.A. in special education.
Though she works with children with a wide range of disabilities, she chose to devote half her graduate coursework to the certificate because she “wanted to have a better understanding of how children function with an autism spectrum disorder, especially as they are becoming more commonly diagnosed and school districts try to keep them in regular classrooms under the inclusion model.”
Salvatore finished her certificate – and master’s – last spring as part of the first cohort to get through sequence. The courses, she said, have given her “a greater awareness of the problems facing autistic children and a sense of how to face them.” She’s learned diagnostic and behavioral strategies that she uses in her daily work and can shared with colleagues at her school.
Cameron Parisi, a public school teacher in Farmington, Conn., is in her final semester of the sequence, taking the instructional strategies course with Lestrud, of Gengras.
Though she has more than a decade working with autistic children, Parisi decided to pursue the certificate in large part for the credential. “I’m a know-it-all,” she said, “and my approach into it was, get this piece of paper that confirms what I already know.”
But as she’s gone through the five-course sequence, Parisi said she has “been surprised along the way of how much I didn’t know. I’ve learned a lot that has fine-tuned my understanding of autism and given me greater confidence and expertise when speaking about a student’s case.”
The courses, she said, have given her “a deeper appreciation for the similarities of the autism spectrum,” whether students with Asperger syndrome or those who are severely disabled.
Getting back to being a student after years as only a teacher, Parisi added, “has been fun.” She and her classmates “get to have these great, in-depth conversations,” she said. “We’re all reading the same things, thinking about the same issues – it’s great.”
Most of the cohort finishing the certificate this fall has been through the whole course sequence together and they're sad to be at the program's end, said Tara Bellefleur, one of Parisi’s classmates, who’s been teaching for 30 years and is now at Gengras. “Our experiences are so different that we’ve all learned ideas and techniques from each other,” she said. "We have Blackboard discussions responding to the readings and to each other. We talk about the issues we’re facing in our own classrooms and it goes beyond theory to the actual practical applications, to helping assess kids and helping them learn.”
Though Gengras "is a great environment here to be a special ed teacher,” Bellefleur said, “the courses have brought new intellectual energy to my work.”
There's always more to learn about autism. “You need a whole bag of tricks to be able to help kids," she said. "You just need to be really dogged about trying to help this kid, to do what you would do if every kid you worked with was your own.”