.Nameplate February 2013 Issue
Feature                                                       Pages 29-33


Services That Span the

Autism Spectrum     

One school system’s concerted attempt to meet individual needs as the student population with diagnoses increases rapidly


 Kristin Secan
Kristin Secan (left), an instructional specialist
for students with autism in Montgomery County,
Md., believes all school staff should be trained
on working with the growing population of
students on the autism spectrum.

In 1980, Andrew Egel, then a young professor of special education at the University of Maryland, was elated to hear he had received a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to fund a model program in the public schools for children with autism. However, his buoyant mood evaporated when he learned the large, suburban district that originally agreed to implement the grant had reneged on its commitment.

Egel began searching for another Maryland school district. Reluctant at first, the Montgomery County Public Schools agreed to work with Egel on a three-year implementation project. In the fall of 1980, three students with autism were enrolled in the model class at Carl Sandburg Learning Center, leaving the vast majority of their peers with autism in private schools around the Washington Beltway.

Enrollment in the class grew steadily as parents and staff members saw positive outcomes.
As a result of the first class’ success, MCPS agreed to fully fund the model classroom at Carl Sandburg in 1983. Since then, the school district has continued to adapt and expand services consistent with evidenced-based practices as the population of students with autism has increased steadily.

Today, Montgomery County enrolls about 2,000 students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. Consistent with national trends, MCPS has experienced an explosion in this number, roughly a 500 percent increase over the last decade.

Since the time of its pilot program funded by Egel’s grant, MCPS has recognized that, despite common characteristics, students on the autism spectrum have significant differences requiring education opportunities and supports that are tailored to their unique needs. We’ve learned a few lessons as a school district committed to all students’ learning.

Lesson 1: Individualize.
Most significantly, we learned that a variety of services is necessary to meet the instructional and social/emotional development of students with an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. About 21 percent of students with autism are served in home-school models, with an additional 60 percent supported in various special education services designed for a heterogeneous student group. The 20 percent of students whose needs cannot be met in the general education environment or through more generic services are educated in 82 ASD-specific classrooms located in 29 comprehensive schools throughout the county.

In developing specific services, our school district first expanded the original ASD classroom model to serve certificate-bound students ages 3-21 who require a small student-to-teacher ratio. As of fall 2000, some students with Asperger’s syndrome received specialized instruction in rigorous academic settings with explicit social-skills training and organizational teaching and learning strategies. In 2009, the district’s department of special education services implemented Autism Resource Services, providing specialized instructional supports that enable middle and high school students with autism to access the general education curriculum. These students may need enhanced adult support, modifications and accommodations to ensure their academic success.


    The Power of Peers
In kindergarten and 1st grade, we have expanded services for students with autism who are able to access the curriculum with strong supports, interventions and accommodations. This set of services will be expanded each year, ultimately supporting students in grades K–5. We have done this work in partnership with the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore and the Maryland State Department of Education. An important strategy in meeting the needs of all students is to leverage partnerships with other organizations and agencies that have the expertise and resources.

Of course, we employ a variety of strategies and services to meet the needs of students on the autism spectrum, ranging from full inclusion to placement in separate public schools. Why the variety of services? Each student is unique. Our school district learned early that the talents and challenges of ASD students call for a great deal of differentiation, even when students appear to have a similar learning profile.

For example, our first effort to serve diploma-bound students was the creation of a High-Functioning Autism/Asperger’s Program. Although the individualized education program goals, services and supports for the students appeared similar, we found the two groups of students had different social and academic needs, often conflicting with one another. The pace of instruction and the verbal abilities of the students with Asperger’s frustrated their peers with high-functioning autism, who needed repetition of instruction to succeed.

While both groups of students needed additional supports for social-skill instruction, neither group was socially drawn to the other, and it quickly became apparent we could not meet their needs in one classroom. Today we have essentially separated these services to meet the needs of individual students, which was made possible by the outstanding professionalism and dedication of our teachers, school leaders and support staff.

Lesson 2: Utilize expertise, but remember to grow your own.
Our school district learned that educators serving students with autism need ongoing support — both on an individual basis and in groups.

Investing in consultative relationships with experts allowed us to implement state-of-the-art practices. Central-office staff members and school-based teachers have increased their capacity to serve students with autism as a result of these consultative relationships. Through the years, central-office and school-based staff members accessed professional development from the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University, the South Carolina Early Autism Project, the University of Maryland’s Department of Special Education and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We currently have a professional development agreement with the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

We credit our collaborations with these organizations for helping us develop the array of services for students with autism by enhancing the skills of our teachers and specialists.

The school district’s relationship with Egel, still on the faculty at the University of Maryland, continues to this day. Students from the university participate in practicums and student-teaching experiences in our programs. As a result, upon graduation, these students have the competencies that MCPS seeks. Seventy percent of newly hired teachers in 2012-13 either completed their undergraduate work at University of Maryland or now are pursuing graduate degrees there.

While teacher turnover in autism classes averages once every four years, most of these teachers transfer to other teaching positions in the county, naturally expanding our capacity to support all students on the autism spectrum in less restrictive environments.

The MCPS Autism Unit, which is part of the Department of Special Education Services, began as a single coordinator supporting the first three classrooms. Currently, a team of 10 program specialists and two psychologists supports classrooms of students and individual students with ASD throughout the county. Each staff member maintains a caseload consisting of schools and students for whom they provide consultative services. The staff also provides professional development.

This model of central-office support ensures consistent service across a school system with 202 schools and nearly 149,000 students. The knowledge gained from our external consultants has created a dynamic team of experts within the district.

Lesson 3: Change your approach based on the data.
MCPS made significant changes in the service-delivery models for students with ASD, based on research, data and input from the community. For example, we designed classes that use applied behavior analysis, one of the most evidenced-based strategies for educating students with autism, for students who need this type of instruction.

When research data indicated that children ages 2 to 5 would benefit from at least 20 hours a week of individual instruction through applied behavior analysis, we changed our prekindergarten model. We now offer 20 hours of individual instruction per week to each student, where in the past such instruction was provided in groups of two or three students.

The outcome data now show that approximately 33 percent of our students leave preK to attend a less restrictive setting for elementary school. Previously, it was just 9 percent.

As our district curriculum changed, new opportunities presented themselves for our students. Our efforts to offer the least restrictive learning environment to students caused challenges for some students with autism who needed specific services that were not yet available in their home schools. But this gave us the momentum we needed to develop our school-based Autism Resource Services.

Parent and community feedback have helped shape our service offerings. When we created our middle school Asperger’s services, we surveyed parents and students about what they felt would be critical elements of the new program and incorporated their suggestions into the design of the program.

Lesson 4: Keep building capacity.
The school district’s autism unit, with 12 full-time staff members, provides training to school-based teams, building the capacity of special education and general education teachers and paraeducators to serve students with autism.

During 2011-12, we provided targeted training to more than 800 staff members, including social workers and transportation and school safety staff members. This allowed a wide range of school-based staff members to more fully understand an autism diagnosis. Psychologists with the autism unit serve as a resource to their peers, providing professional development to all psychologists in the school district.

Our professional development sessions are well-attended, and the autism unit receives a growing number of requests for additional training at schools that are seeing a significant rise in the number of students with autism.

As that population grows, nearly every employee must be trained on how to work with and support students on the spectrum. For many of these students, the first interaction they have with a staff member can make a big difference in the teaching and learning process. It is clear that a few hours of professional development can save many hours of crisis intervention and make it possible for students to be served in the least restrictive environment possible.

Kristin Secan is an instructional specialist on services for students with autism spectrum disorders with the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md. E-mail: Kristin_Secan@mcpsmd.org. Gwendolyn Mason is director of special education services with the Montgomery County Public Schools.

Diagnostic Manual Drops Asperger’s

The first major revisions to the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual in almost two decades will drop “Asperger’s disorder,” a change that will affect school-age children who receive special education services.

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which will be published in May, adds the term “autism spectrum disorder,” which already is in wide use in public school districts nationwide. Asperger’s will be dropped as its own diagnosis and incorporated under the umbrella diagnosis.

Special education directors see this as a significant and controversial revision to the manual. In parent and advocacy circles, the elimination of the separate diagnostic category may mean some students with Asperger’s will no longer qualify for services, according to Kristin Secan, instructional specialist on services for students with autism spectrum disorders in the Montgomery County, Md., Public Schools.

“In MCPS, we will continue our service and continue placing students based on individualized education programs and student characteristics,” Secan said. “I feel confident it should not affect our ability to identify kids who need particular supports. However, I know that there will be some unanticipated outcomes that will challenge us in the schools.”

The American Psychiatric Association said the new edition, known in the field as DSM-5, is aimed at more accurately defining mental disorders that have an impact on people’s lives, not expanding the scope of psychiatry. The manual serves as the handbook clinicians and researchers use to diagnose and classify mental disorders.


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