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Teaching teachers

Special education professor’s program prepares teachers to work with children with autism

For the past 17 years, special education professor David Gast has dedicated his life to preparing UGA students for the challenges of teaching children with a wide assortment of mental disabilities.

But with retirement on the horizon, the highly respected scholar has shifted his attention to working with not only his young undergraduate students but also teachers already in the classroom, creating an intensively trained cohort of educators who are better able to contend with the unique difficulties of teaching children with autism—­developmental disorders which impair a child’s communication skills and ability to interact.

When Gast entered graduate school in 1971, he intended to work primarily with children with autism. However, the special education field of the ’70s was exploding with reams of new information, leading the then-doctoral student down many different paths. But in the last few years, Gast has returned to his academic roots.

“As I approach the end of my career, I want to get back to what I really wanted to do when I got into the field back in the early ’70s,” said Gast. “These last 10 years of my career, I want to go back to where I started and really focus on these kids with autism.”

To help deal with the soaring increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism, Gast developed a partnership with Gwinnett County Public Schools in 2003.
Since its inception, the Collaborative Personnel Preparation in Autism graduate program has prepared dozens of elementary school teachers to better work with children with autism. COPPA was originally funded by an $894,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and has recently received a second federal grant of $793,000 to expand its work through 2011. The partnership is led by Gast and Deanna Luscre, who coordinated the ASD program for Gwinnett schools from 1996–2003.

The project could not have come at a better time. Diagnoses of children with autism spectrum disorders are growing as much as 17 percent per year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. It is estimated that the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

Children with autism have different social, language and communication skills than neurotypical children, requiring teachers to try innovative approaches in their classrooms, ­according to Gast.

“There’s a need for specialized training on how to structure the classroom, how to respond to these kids when they behave inappropriately and how to design instruction that will facilitate the learning of new skills,” he said.

It was not until the middle of the 20th century that there was even a name for the disorder that disrupts families and presents lifelong challenges for thousands of children. But today, autism affects an estimated 3.4 of every 1,000 children ages 3 to 10 across America, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Despite the alarming rise in autism spectrum disorders, the COPPA Project is one of only a few university programs in the Southeast designed to prepare teachers for such a classroom challenge. Many COPPA students are certified teachers who have returned to the university for graduate studies to undertake a specialization in ASDs.

College of Education students won’t be the only ones filling seats in COPPA classes this time around. Families of children with autism, students at other universities, teachers working in other school systems and noneducation majors at UGA are all encouraged to take advantage of the courses. Graduate and undergraduate classes are offered, and many will be held in the Gwinnett area.  

In addition, COPPA organizers plan to use the teachers who have completed the program as an important resource for training future groups.

“The hope is that those teachers have gone out, restructured their classrooms and are making a difference in the lives of those kids as well as their parents,” said Gast. “Our new students are going to get to see classrooms that really approach model classrooms in these various school systems.”

All graduate students funded by the COPPA project must complete intensive research projects. The finished projects are already being applied to real-life situations and some will be published in academic journals.

“By the time COPPA students have completed the didactic program and are interns, their confidence is soaring and they have learned a wealth of information, which assures them that they have a lot to offer their students with autism,” said Luscre.

The COPPA program leads to a master’s degree in special education with certification in either the special education adapted curriculum or special education general curriculum with an emphasis in ASD. Students also may pursue a specialist degree with an emphasis in ASD through a 31-hour program.

“I would like to see our graduates assume leadership roles in their schools, so they can share their training with others who have not had the opportunity for autism education,” Luscre said.

Over the next few years, Gast hopes to expand COPPA training to include middle and high school teachers, eventually providing a continuum of support for students with autism throughout their time in school.  “That’s certainly a goal of mine before retirement, to see this in place,” he said.