UW News

October 17, 2002

Autism education is focus of $5 million grant

A $5 million Department of Education grant announced recently will set up a network of resources aimed at improving the nation’s approach to educating children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

The grant will be headquartered at the UW and will include additional centers at five institutions around the country.

“My broad goal for this grant is to impact schools in the United States in a way that all children with autism can receive what they’re due, which is a free and appropriate education at their local public school,” said Ilene Schwartz, the principal investigator for the grant and a professor in the UW’s College of Education.

To accomplish that goal, autism experts will host small teams of educators from one district at a time for a weeklong intensive training session. But before that, an expert from one of the six participating institutions will pay a visit to the school district to assess specific needs and tailor the training appropriately.

Teams of no more than six educators will travel to the nearest site for training. Each of the participating institutions — the University of Colorado at Denver, the University of South Florida, Ohio State University, the University of Kansas, the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, and the UW — has an elementary school with established programs for autistic children in place. The trainees will meet with and learn from the experts at those institutions, but will also get hands-on experience working with autistic children within the framework of a model program.

The weeklong training, according to Schwartz, will be shaped to meet the specific needs of a particular school district. So if the team is from Ellensburg, for example, the training session will reflect the specific needs within that school district. “I’m already going to know about them and their situation and together we’re going to make this work in Ellensburg,” Schwartz said.

A follow-up visit to the school will be planned for a month after the training. That meeting will help ensure that the goals and plans made during the training are being implemented effectively. Schwartz says the individualized approach and the follow-up are what will make the program successful.

“Most other trainings are a one-day show-and-tell,” she said. “To me it’s a difference of going to a cooking class and watching someone make an apple pie and then going home and actually making an apple pie yourself. The recipe seemed a lot easier when someone else was doing it.”

The problem of educating autistic children is rapidly becoming more acute. Just 15 years ago only three in 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism. The numbers have shot up to one in 500 today.

Researchers can’t fully explain the rise in the incidence of autism, but Schwartz has some ideas. First, the diagnostic category has broadened; second, the public is more aware of autism today; and finally, people understand that there are better interventions today than there used to be, which has the effect of more diagnoses.

“But all those things together, I don’t think, make up the increase,” she said. “We know there are more kids with autism and no one seems to know why.”

Schwartz has been working with children with autism for more than 20 years and co-authored the book The Exceptional Child: Inclusion in Early Childhood Education. The centers will be up and running in January of 2003 and plan to serve more than 200 school districts over the course of the five-year grant.