Sunday, October 16, 2016

What Do School Personnel Know About Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects approximately 1 to 2 % of the school-age population.  The majority of children with autism are educated within the public school system, most often in general education classes, either full- or part-time. Thus, teachers (regular and special education) and other school personnel must be familiar with current best practices for identifying and treating children with ASD. However, many do not have formal training in educating and intervening with this group of children. To address the increased need for services in school settings, it has been recommended that school personnel participate in trainings to develop the skills and competencies necessary to provide effective services to students with ASD. Although a review of the literature suggests that school personnel are receiving some specialized training related to autism, there continues to be a pressing need for more continuing education opportunities and improved preparation. It is vital that school personnel understand this complex disorder in order to help students achieve positive outcomes, especially since they share the responsibility of educating the increasing number of children being identified with ASD.
Pilot Study
Although there is a paucity of research focusing on school personnel's perceived and/or factual knowledge of autism, a pilot survey published in the School Psychologist provides us with an exploratory investigation of teacher, counselor, and paraprofessional knowledge of autism. The survey attempted to answer the following questions: (a) To what extent do school personnel (teachers, counselors, and paraprofessionals) perceive that they are competent in their understanding of autism?, (b) What is school personnel's factual knowledge of autism (definition, assessment/diagnosis, and treatments)?, and (c) To what extent do school personnel that work directly with students with autism differ in their perception and factual knowledge of autism in comparison to those who do not work with students with autism?
Fifty-four school personnel from a southwestern state participated in the pilot survey. Participants were school district employees enrolled in various graduate level majors who were attending a small university (within the college of education) in the Southwestern United States. The sample included 26 general education teachers, 14 special education teachers, 7 school counselors and 7 paraprofessionals. Seventy percent indicated that they worked directly with students diagnosed with autism (instructor, interventionist, care-provider, etc.), while approximately 30 percent indicated that they indirectly served students with autism (consultant, academic planning, multidisciplinary team member, etc.). A majority indicated that they had never participated in autism training(s) and when asked whether they would like to take part in future training(s), most indicated that they did not have a desire to participate.
Participants completed two measures developed by the authors, a Perceptions Survey and a Knowledge Survey. Both measures contained items derived from empirically-supported findings in the research literature. The Perceptions Survey items were designed to assess the respondents' perceived competence of their knowledge and ability to implement research findings. The Knowledge Survey items were designed to assess the respondents' factual knowledge of research findings about autism (definition, assessment/diagnosis, and treatment).
The results of the survey indicated that overall, the perceived competence of general and special education teachers, school counselors, and paraprofessional regarding their knowledge of autism was average. Although school personnel that work directly and indirectly with students both reported having average perceived competence, those providing direct service had a statistically significantly higher level of perceived competence. The results of the Knowledge Survey indicated that school personnel who work directly with students correctly defined the disorder, while those that do not demonstrated moderate knowledge with some errors. However, school personnel's factual knowledge about the assessment/diagnosis and treatment of autism was low, regardless of whether services were delivered directly or indirectly.
The findings of this pilot survey raise several important questions about school personnel’s perceived and factual knowledge about autism. A majority of participants indicated they had no prior training and expressed little interest in receiving education related to autism in the future. This is concerning, given that all participants working with students with autism, either directly or indirectly, reported average perceived competence yet demonstrated a low level of factual knowledge. This divergence suggests that teachers, school counselors, and paraprofessionals may overestimate their factual knowledge about autism and as a result, fail to see a need for additional training.
Despite the study’s limitations (e.g., small sample size) and need for further research relating to school personnel’s perceptions and knowledge, the results have significant implications for school-based practice. For example, administrators, supervisors, and support professionals such as school psychologists should exercise caution when assuming that school personnel have an adequate factual understanding and working knowledge of autism. It is also important to recognize that anecdotal reports are insufficient when determing the need for training and that direct assessment of factual knowledge is required. Failure to correctly identify training needs can have a negative effect on screening/assessment and intervention selection, planning, and implementation. The results also raise an important question as to what extent school personnel’s perceived knowledge about autism might limit their willingness to participate in training and contribute to resistance in consultation.
Concluding Comments
There is a critical need for more coordinated efforts among community and school professionals for the training of teachers in evidence-based instruction and behavioral management practices for children with ASD. Because the knowledge base in ASD is changing so rapidly, it is imperative that school personnel remain current with the research and up to date on scientifically supported approaches that have direct application to the educational setting. For example, some intervention and assessment procedures require a specific knowledge base and skills for successful implementation. It is vital that service providers understand best practice procedures across school, community, and home settings. School personnel can help to ensure that students with ASD receive an effective educational program by participating in training programs designed to increase their understanding and factual knowledge about assessment and intervention /treatment approaches.
Williams, K., Schroeder, J. L., Carvalho, C., & Cervantes, A. (2011). School personnel knowledge of autism: A pilot survey. The School Psychologist, 65, 7-9.

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, CCBT, NCSP is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. He is also the editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools and author of the book, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT.
© Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

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