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Area colleges teaching the teachers
Thursday, February 12, 2009
By KIM BARTO - Bulletin Staff Writer
As more and more children are diagnosed with autism, the schools charged with educating them are looking for ways to meet their needs.
However, one problem schools face is finding educators trained to work with autistic students. Virginia has no official state endorsement for teachers in autism.
"That's very frustrating, trying to find people with a background in autism, because there's no licensure in it," said Rebecca Wells, special education director for Henry County Schools.
That issue prompted two area colleges to launch classes last semester aimed at school personnel who may be encountering autism in the classroom for the first time. One is a three-part series offered by Radford University at the New College Institute in uptown Martinsville.
The nine-credit certificate program began last semester "because of concern about autism becoming such a national problem, and an awareness that this ... is on the rise astronomically, not only in Virginia, but in the nation," said NCI Executive Director Barry Dorsey.
"We want to help the teachers as much as we can," Dorsey said. "It's important to understand the problems students with autism spectrum disorders have."�
The classes are held through videoconferencing on four or five Saturdays each semester, and the third part of the series will be offered in the summer, he said.
Averett University in Danville also began an autism certificate program in the fall. One of the instructors is Jill Hamlin, an occupational therapist and co-director of Building Blocks, a private school for children with autism in Danville that is a division of the Center for Pediatric Therapies.
The three-course, nine-credit-hour program has drawn teachers, therapists and school administrators, Hamlin said.
The challenging aspect of educating autistic students "is just lack of knowledge," she said. Some of the program participants, including some who have master's degrees in special education, have told her "nothing about autism was taught in their special education classes."�
Some students with autism are "very successful" participating in regular classes, "but it takes modification and understanding from the teachers to work with a child," Hamlin said.
Inclusion in mainstream classes is the ultimate goal at Building Blocks, which was founded in 2004 because of increased demand for services for autistic children. The school started with three employees and six students but now can accommodate up to 18 children between ages 2 and 8.
In addition to schooling, the center provides outpatient services, therapies and consultation for school districts.
Except for during lunch, the school has a one-to-one ratio of adults and students, and "each has their own little classroom that they work in," Hamlin said.
"Of course, for intensive programs, cost is always an issue," she said. "In order to provide as intense an amount of services as some of these children need, it is expensive. It takes extra resources and materials, and more space."�