Addressing the Autism Education Crisis


A recent
decrying the fact that Mississippi requires no autism training for its special education teachers struck me as hardly newsworthy. The
reality is that special education teacher requirements vary drastically from state-to-state and when it comes to autism, they are abysmal. As far as I could
tell from my research (and I would love to be wrong), only six states in the entire country require teachers who are responsible for educating children with
autism to know anything about it. Michigan led the way in the early 80’s, followed by Delaware, West Virginia, Nevada, Florida and California. Florida and
California’s autism endorsement requirements will be fully effective in 2011.

Stated benefits of requiring an autism endorsement for those who teach children with autism are many and obvious:

  • Most states reported having a more qualified, better prepared workforce
    for meeting the academic and social needs of students with autism.
  • Coursework leading to the autism endorsement has exposed teachers to a wide range of strategies for working with students with autism.
  • The endorsement has led to a heightened level of awareness among educators regarding the unique characteristics associated with autism.
  • IHE programs’ focus on behavior analysis and functional communication has benefited all students with disabilities, not just students with autism.
  • Some speculate that personnel preparation associated with the autism endorsement may result in keeping more students with autism in general
    education classrooms.

  • Working with children with autism spectrum disorders is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting. Their parents are often very well
    informed about autism and may know more than the professionals working with their children, who may have had only general training. Parental
    expectations add an additional layer of stress. These factors can lead to staff turnover and shortages.

The one drawback noted is that the autism endorsement can oversimplify the complex needs of educating students on the autism spectrum, yet it is
universally agreed that the advantages far outweigh this concern. It seems that the endorsement, coupled with continuing education in autism, would be the best of all possible scenarios. Exemplary statewide programs do exist to provide training in autism for their teachers. These include Division TEACCH (North Carolina), Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA), Pennsylvania Training & Technical Assistance Network (PaTTAN) and the Minnesota Autism Project.

In Seattle, there’s no dearth of special trainings for autism, but teachers aren’t asked to attend them. Fed up by the state of special education in the
Seattle School District, I once called a member of the school board to share with him my many ideas for improvement, such as having special education
teachers that actually know something about autism. I’ll never forget the shock in his voice when he exclaimed, "But that takes money!!" I replied
that they could at least supply teachers with a list of books and other resources that are available online and in the library. Cutting me off, he
served up a closing platitude that he "cares about special education," which only let me know that he actually doesn’t.

Around here, education is a numbers game. With the spiraling numbers of children on the autism spectrum, states are going to rue their neglect of the
issue and discover that being on the cutting edge of autism best practices is in the best interest of everyone involved.