The Need to Educate Educators | Organization for Autism Research

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Two recent incidents at schools in Kentucky have highlighted the importance of educating teachers, administrators, and other school staff about autism spectrum disorder. An elementary school teacher in at Wurtland Elementary School in Greenup County is facing charges of assault after a school surveillance video showed her dragging a nine-year-old student on the autism spectrum through school hallways.

The incident took place on October 24, and the teacher, Trina Abrams, was charged in January with assault in the fourth degree towards a child younger than 12. She entered a plea of “not guilty.” The school district fired Abrams in early January. 

A similar situation occurred at Tates Creek Middle School in Lexington on September 14. Eleven-year-old Thatcher Grayson was dragged through school hallways by both a teacher and the school nurse. Jo Grayson, the boy’s mother, was originally told her son had been having a meltdown at the time. However, Grayson believes that was not the case and that the situation had escalated when her son refused to stand up in class. The teacher involved in the incident is no longer working at the school, and Grayson plans to take legal action.

Parallels between these two stories have drawn increased attention to a lack of understanding of students on the autism spectrum, in addition to a lack of effective training. In an article on Salon, Matthew Rozsa, a writer for Salon and a person with autism, wrote about the incidents, noting that his educational career was “marred by instructors who, for one reason or another, viewed my autism as their burden.” He went on to write that “abundant anecdotal experience that there is a prevailing sense among many in education that if a person is on the autism spectrum, they should have to learn how to accommodate the rest of the world, and that it isn’t a teacher’s job to hold their hand and help them out but their responsibility to stop acting so atypically.”

Rozsa interviewed Connie Kasari, Ph.D., an OAR-funded researcher and a professor of human development and psychology at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and Center for Autism Research & Treatment, for the article. She explained that educators “need to understand individual differences in learning…Teachers should have multiple methods for reaching children using Universal Design principles, and special education teachers particularly should have effective behavior management techniques and strategies to effectively teach.”

There are good models of how to train school personnel and others about autism. For example, at John Reed Elementary School in Rohnert Park, Calif., two new special education classes for students with mild to moderate autism provides a 2-1 student-to-staff ratio, individualized curriculum and assessments, and structured but flexible class schedules, notes an article in the Press Democrat, the local newspaper.

In fact, teachers in the program go above and beyond to ensure the children are learning at the highest level possible for them. One student’s teacher, Travis Curtis, visited her at her previous school. When he was there, he saw that she struggled with paying attention. In his classroom, he provides positive reinforcement and extra attention to her. He told the newspaper that he wants “her to leave happy. If learning is fun, she’s learning better.”

A study described in an October article on the Disability Scoop website found that providing teachers with just a little bit of extra knowledge about how to work with children with the developmental disorder can yield significant results. The study looked at elementary schools in districts across the country. As one of the study authors noted in the article, one of the most impressive parts of the study was that it involved both general and special education teachers. In most states, the article said, general education teachers are not required to learn about autism.

Educating educators holds the best promise for ensuring that what happened to the two youngsters with autism described in this article never happens again.

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