UGA program preparing teachers to work with children with autism receives $793,000 grant

UGA program preparing teachers to work with children with autism receives $793,000 grant to expand work to Clarke, Cobb and Forsyth counties

Athens, Ga. – An innovative University of Georgia graduate program in special education that has prepared dozens of Gwinnett County elementary school teachers to work with children with autism over the past three years has received a new federal grant of $793,023 to expand its work through 2010.

Sixty percent of the funding will support fellowships for graduate students pursuing careers in special education with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The new funding will allow UGA to offer additional training in ASD to interested teachers in Clarke, Cobb and Forsyth county schools. Teachers from other school districts are also eligible to participate in one or more of the courses being offered.

Children with autism have different social, language and communication skills than neuro-typical children, requiring teachers to try innovative approaches in their classrooms, said David Gast, a UGA professor in special education and co-director of the Collaborative Personnel Preparation in Autism (COPPA) project.

“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.

Gast and Deanna Luscre, who coordinated the ASD program for Gwinnett County Public Schools from 1996-2003, developed COPPA in 2003 with the original grant of $894,000 from the U.S. Department of Education.

ASDs are developmental disorders characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior. They affect an estimated 3.4 of every 1,000 children ages 3 to10 years across America, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Diagnoses of children with autism are growing as much as 17 percent per year, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. At this rate, the prevalence of autism could reach 4 million Americans in the next decade.

“Teachers often face the need to learn about autism after they have already been hired to work in classrooms and find they are not using correct methods to positively impact students,” said Luscre, who at one time oversaw 90 classes for students with autism in Gwinnett schools.

Additionally, the UGA classes, both graduate and undergraduate level, are expected to draw interest from members of families of children with autism, students at other universities and non-education majors at UGA. Many of these classes will be held in the Gwinnett area.

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 may also pursue a specialist degree with an emphasis in ASD through a 31-hour program.

Full-time students usually take two years to complete the 41-hour program, while part-time students typically finish in three years.

For more information, see www.coe.uga.edu/csse/spe/coppa_degree.html or email dlgast@uga.edu.