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Archived News: Across Virginia
April 2014

Richmond Times-Dispatch Op/Ed: Wehman: Autism and (un)employment

Paul Wehman

April has been Autism Awareness Month, and I can only hope the annual observance does indeed chip away each year at the misunderstanding that surrounds people with autism — a condition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month is identified in 1 in 68 children.

Various news stories, awareness campaigns and even the television show “Parenthood” have done well this month and year-round to tell authentic stories of autism, which often help people see that those among us living with autism should be included in our classrooms and social lives. However, that is simply not enough.

I have seen in more than 20 years of empirical research and anecdotal observance that people with autism can be valuable contributors to our society. They hold gifts that are not fully realized by the public — yet.

Employment, just one of many examples of this value, is an ideal opportunity for people with autism to not only show off their skills and talents, but also to become taxpaying members of society.

The sad truth about the country’s unemployment woes is that many businesses would love to hire, but they cannot find people with the right technology and engineering skills or the work ethic and capacity for providing precise detail.

Read this Op/Ed article by Dr. Paul Wehman at the


Hampton City Schools Support their Special Education Teachers though Initiatives Aligned with the VCU-ACE Grant

Special education teachers who serve students with significant needs face many challenges. Often, they lack opportunities to collaborate, share ideas, and problem solve with other professionals. This missing interaction makes it difficult to share ideas and gain new insights. Hampton City Schools realized these challenges and implemented a two-prong initiative to support this population of teachers. The first part of this initiative was the development of Collaborative Learning Teams for self-contained special education and preschool teachers. These groups of teachers meet quarterly to discuss specific evidence-based practices that can be beneficial to any student included in their classrooms.

The second part of this initiative was implemented as an effort to share materials in between these quarterly meetings. Hampton City Schools Special Education Coordinator, Charlotte Brookes, created a page on the Hampton City Schools Special Education webpage that houses curriculum resources, VDOE updates, lesson-planning templates, data collection sheets, and division announcements. As more initiatives were implemented though the VCU-ACE partnership, this was an organic step that provided teachers with a wealth of information and resources. Recently, this webpage was expanded to allow teachers to add resources. Since then, teachers have added extensive data collection sheets and pictures of specific evidence-based supports being utilized in classrooms in Hampton City. Hampton City Schools have been supported for the past three years by Noel Woolard, VCU/ACE Technical Assistant Associate.


VCU-ACE Pilot Program Makes Advanced Impact in Pre-School Classrooms

Students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often need greater amounts of structure and direct, systematic instruction. As part of its mission, VCU-ACE Training and Technical Assistance Associates are working in classrooms of preschool-aged children across the state to enhance the skills of preschool teachers. This pilot program is currently taking place in two VA school divisions, Richmond County and Henrico County.

VCU-ACE is implementing a pilot program in a Richmond County preschool classroom. ACE team members are working with the preschool teacher to enhance the focus on communication and social skills. ACE team members have created a new outlook on how the special education teacher can develop successful individual plans for preschool students with ASD to enhance receptive communication, expressive communication, spontaneous language, and social skills.

A focus is placed on coaching the teacher and paraprofessional on implementing strategies with fidelity and delivering instruction throughout the entire school day. The Training and Technical Assistance Associates collect and analyze data, observe, and work with the children and staff to make informed decisions. This steadfast support results in successful collaboration with improved communication instruction where the students thrive and grow.

Expressive and receptive communication skills are targeted through systematic instruction using discrete trials. Spontaneous language and social skills are then targeted through natural environment teaching. Students with limited language skills are encouraged to expand vocabulary by learning nouns, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions among others. Sequencing, which is crucial to the development of logic and critical-thinking skills, as well as story telling are also targeted. The pictures and items are representative of the children's daily experiences. These are all skills they will be able to use and implement in their day to day lives.

VCU-ACE is also working together with preschool teachers and the Autism Team in Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS). The project is customized to meet the needs of the six self-contained autism classroom teachers. The HCPS Autism Team wanted to ensure that students transitioning from preschool to kindergarten had received best practice instruction for them to move into a least restrictive placement for kindergarten. To make this happen, baseline data had to be collected where areas of improvement existed. Using the Autism Program Environment Rating Scale (APERS©) , the teams of HCPS Autism Staff and VCU-ACE team members observed in the classrooms and provided teachers feedback on eleven programmatic domains: Learning Environments, Learning Environment Structure/Schedule, Positive Learning Climate, Assessment and IEP Development, Curriculum/Instruction, Communication, Social Competence, Personal Independence and Competence, Functional Behavior, Family Involvement, and Teaming.

The evaluation team took a very supportive approach when disseminating information about the results to increase staff commitment. The mission of this initiative was to bring all classrooms up to a higher standard, not to be critical towards teachers. At first, this valued group of Early Childhood Special Education Teachers was anxious about having two to three observers score their classroom based on just a few hours’ experience. After coaching began fears were alleviated when teachers and instructional assistants reaped the benefits of fine tuning their current practices and implementing new strategies.

This project will continue into next year in order to provide professional development and coaching on priority goals. The post-intervention measures will be administered in late May to assess the effectiveness of the initiative. Anecdotal reports thus far are yielding improvements in the use and fidelity of evidence-based practices.


VCU offers a Post-baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder!

The increase in students with ASD in public schools has resulted in a demand for effectively trained educators, parents, and service providers. The Department of Special Education and Disability Policy at VCU has designed a Post-baccalaureate Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorder Program to prepare participants to educate and support individuals with autism spectrum disorder in the educational setting from early intervention through adult services. The course sequence enables participants to develop inclusive knowledge and experience in assessment, teaching strategies, and curriculum development. This program is geared toward, special and general educators, but is also appropriate for caregivers, and individuals who want to gain knowledge and a solid understanding of ASD.

More information about this program can be found on the VCU School of Education website.


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