April is Autism Awareness Month, and this Saturday there will be an autism walk sponsored by our local autism support group. Last year's walk, which was the first ever, was postponed because of rain, and yet was still a success. This year, the school system has joined in the effort to sponsor and support it by getting the word out to more people. The stated purpose of the walk, besides raising awareness, is to help raise money for the training of teachers and staff in the Magnolia County school system.
I'm always leery of teacher training on autism. First, most of these workshops spend the majority of their time sharing characteristics of individuals with autism. This is fine, for the first few times of going to a workshop. But I've been to several, and this is a major part of each and every one. At some point, we need to move on to what to do with these individuals.
Second, 99% of the participants are teachers. Again, this is fine but in the majority of cases, the first line of adult instruction is not the teacher, it is the paras. Para educators are responsible for more and more of the instruction for individuals with autism, for either good, or ill. Micheal Giangreco did a series of qualitative studies looking at para training and behaviors and discovered that the paras were in sore need of training in regards to the specific disabilities for which they were delivering services. There's where some training in characteristics could come in handy, as paras frequently identify behaviors as being belligerent and oppositional rather than being a legitimate part of the disability. Students who are included often receive para support, and more often than not, those students with paras become more ignored by the classroom teacher.
For those paying attention, you'll notice that I'm a bit crazy about para support and training.
Once we get beyond characteristics, we get into the nuts and bolts of instructional strategies. And this area is fraught with a myriad of pitfalls. What strategies should be taught? It should be obvious that they should be strategies supported by peer reviewed research. Which is mostly going to be behavioral strategies. If I only had one day to do training on interventions, I would teach nothing but behavioral training with graduated (least-to-most) prompting along with data collection. It is possible to teach this in a single day, or even in just a few hours if I'm teaching a small enough group. It's versatile enough to work with communication, daily living and academic skills.
Only if I have time to burn will I teach something more relationship-based, like floortime or social stories. Social stories have the virtue of having a broader research base, while floortime doesn't require a very high skill level. I have successfully gotten high school students to do floortime type activities with our lower functioning students. While I'm not sold on it as an efficacious intervention, it doesn't hurt anything and keeps student volunteers engaged instead of just sitting around. The same is true of paras, altho I generally expect them to do more sophisticated interventions.
As I've posted before, everyone has some sort of pet intervention. The first few years teaching, it was all I could do not to throw the OTs out of the room when they started going on about sensory integration therapy, with the brushing, the weighted vests, swings and joint compressions. Again, I'll do them if I have time to burn, which is rare. I'll let the OT train a para in this if they want, but I've never gigged a para for NOT doing it. We'll do everything else on the IEP before resorting to this pseudo scientific intervention of dubious worth.
Another neglected area of training involves dealing with parents of students on the autistic spectrum. I know of no single disability category with more energetically charged parents than this group. They can be hell on wheels, if not given proper respect. They are getting their information from the internet, each other and newsgroups or listserves. So job #1 is directing parents towards better sources of information. The Autism Society of America is sometimes good and sometimes bad as a clearing house of information.
At last year's autism conference, a parent asked a speaker where she could read current research on individuals with autism. He suggested the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA). Small wonder, since he was the editor of that journal at the time! While JABA has good research (second to none in ABA) and often covers the subject of autism, that isn't the best place to go for parents. It's gotten increasingly technical over the years, and the focus is exclusively ABA in orientation.
A better choice for good, readible research in autism is Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities (FOADD). While still having space for behavioral studies, they have published different designs and even qualitative studies on parents perceptions on services, video modeling, social stories, potty training and GFCF diets just to name a few. It's very well-rounded in its approach and is peer reviewed. Jane, who is not educated in the field per se, would often snatch it out of the mailbox when it came and I'd have to hunt it down.
The Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions (JPBI) is another research journal I would recommend ahead of JABA. Topics covered here seem to cover a much more practical orientation that those covered by JABA. While not specifically geared towards autism, it is covered at least as much as in JABA. It still contains many behavioral components, but is not as heavy or technical as studies submitted to JABA.
Teachers of individuals with autism should be aware of the interventions that parents are considering, such as the special diets, chelation therapy, sensory integration therapy and others. Chances are good that some teacher, some where, is confronted with a parent who has heard of and is sold on the LindaMood Bell system. Some orientation to these other interventions could be beneficial for teachers, as a shrug of the shoulders hardly engenders credibility.
Training educators on autism and all of its facets is an ambitious and daunting task. It is more than just making them aware of what autism is and its effects.