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New UO program trains autism specialists.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

The University of Oregon this week will launch the state's first teacher training program dedicated solely to preparing specialists in autism, a perplexing neurological disorder affecting an increasing number of children.

Project PASS (Preparing Autism Specialists for Schools) aims to boost the ranks both locally and statewide of educators trained to identify and work effectively with children with autism, said Dr. Cindy Herr, assistant professor and research associate in the College of Education's secondary special education department.

With an ongoing explosion in childhood autism, the need is pressing in many schools, she explained.

"I believe the schools are trying to be very responsive to this increased need," she said, but they are constrained by finances and, in some cases, a lack of expertise.

The UO is able to offer the courses, as well as tuition assistance for students, thanks to a competitive, five-year U.S. Department of Education grant totaling nearly $1.2 million. The thick grant application included 45 letters from state school officials, local districts, advocacy groups and others emphasizing Oregon's sky-high autism rate - the highest in the nation, according to federal statistics - and the critical need for teachers, counselors, psychologists and speech and language pathologists who understand the disorder.

Herr and her colleagues got word of the award just two weeks ago, giving them scant time to get ready and fill classes by the start of the fall term today.

"We had a lot of things waiting in the wings," including class syllabi, she said, and she fully expected all 14 slots to fill by today.

Completion of the six-course series won't yield any formal certification in autism education. No such endorsement exists in Oregon, Herr said, although the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission has expressed interest in creating one.

Autism manifests itself in various ways, but it usually begins in childhood. Children and adults with autism typically have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. In Oregon, the incidence of autism in school-age children has increased fourfold from just over 1,000 children in 1994 to well over 4,000 in 2003.

Participants in Project PASS will learn research-based strategies for working with children on all points of the autism spectrum.

Courses will focus on behavior management, communication tools, appropriate curriculum methods, techniques for teaching social skills and strategies for working with other agencies and school personnel, among other topics.

"Some of the people who are going to do this are students who are already in the master's program in special education, but a lot who are hoping to do it are current teachers and speech and language pathologists who desperately want more training in the area of autism," Herr said.

Haidee Copeland, a graduate student in special education who has a third-grade son with Asperger syndrome, said she came to the UO this year specifically because of its stellar reputation for special education and its well regarded autism experts. She was thrilled when she first heard about the possible grant.

"The teachers at local schools haven't had a way, prior to this Project PASS being available, to learn all the different idiosyncrasies and needs of autism students," said Copeland, a former high school math teacher who hopes to work as a school autism consultant. "I am delighted to not only have this, but to have it locally."

Larry Sullivan, director of education support services for the Eugene School District, said he's sure teachers and specialists in the district will be interested in the series, although many have attended conferences and autism training sessions in recent years as the district has ramped up its commitment to serve the growing number of students diagnosed with autism.

"We need to make sure we have highly trained teachers," he said. "Any chance there is to train our own folks as well as new folks in the field is great."
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Title Annotation:Schools; A $1.2 million grant funds a first-of-its-kind series of courses aimed at preparing teachers to work with autistic children
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 25, 2004
Words:651
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