Elizabeth V. Neumann, M.A., BCaBA
I was recently reflecting on my teaching career when selecting a topic for my master’s thesis. I wanted to focus on an area that could really make a difference for students with ASDs like the ones I had worked with. I believe I was most effective when I worked with administrators who understood what an autism diagnosis truly entails and what best practices are for these students. Now that I educate other school professionals through the nonprofit agency, Autism New Jersey, I have met many other teachers who share this view, as well as administrators themselves who recognize their critical role in this area. So I chose to research public school administrators’ current level of understanding of autism spectrum disorders. My graduate work was consistent with Autism New Jersey’s mission. As a training resource for parents and professionals for decades, my colleagues and I recognize that a key to effective school programs is consistent support from administrators, and we sought to learn more about their specific needs.
For my study, more than 300 public school superintendents, principals, and special services directors completed surveys. Their responses offered a wealth of information about their knowledge of autism, scientifically-validated strategies, and their strengths and challenges insupporting their staff and students. The data showed that most administrators have very little, if any, training in meeting the complex and unique educational needs of students with ASDs. This is through no fault of their own as there are no requirements pertaining to specific special needs in their certification programs, despite the fact that they are responsible for increasing numbers of students with autism. As school leaders, they make budgetary, curricular, staffing, and scheduling decisions that have a direct effect on students with ASDs without being equipped with evidence-based information that could guide them.
These data guided our development of workshop and publication content focused on the following areas: learning about autism and students’ educational needs; maximizing limited resources by identifying evidence-based practices; supporting staff of diagnosed students in all placements across campus; and providing an extensive list of resources across these topics. Through the partial support of an Autism Speaks Family Services Community Grant, we offered ten free workshops specifically tailored to this underserved yet crucial group of stakeholders in the autism community. Autism for Public School Administrators: What You Need to Know was sent to all special services directors in New Jersey as well as all workshop registrants.
This top-down approach to improving educational services has been very well-received by the participating administrators and the autism community at large. Participants have been most appreciative of this information, and it has been encouraging to see their desire to maximize their offerings to students with ASDs, their families, and the school professionals responsible for their education. One administrator summarized, “Your workshop gave me a terrific overview of autism – hopes and challenges – as well as a broader scope of the input and expertise necessary to sufficiently contribute to the independence of a student with autism.”
Parents and teachers, please encourage your superintendents, principals, and special services directors to order a free copy of Autism for Public School Administrators: What You Need to Know by calling 800.4.AUTISM or visiting www.autismnj.org. We hope that this initiative will be a valuable step to helping public school programs meet the intense needs of students with ASDs and are pursuing additional funding to continue and expand it on behalf of students with autism.
Please note that while the survey responses came solely from New Jersey, the information found in the workshops and publication is likely to be of great value to administrators throughout the country.
For more information about the Family Services Community Grants program, visit http://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/grants/community-grants