Getting real about autism in schools

February 28, 2012

Michigan report: Many educators need better preparation to help students with ASD

More than 40 percent of Michigan educators aren’t applying some of the most effective teaching methods for use with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), despite their proven track record, according to a study by Michigan State University education scholars.
The ASD-Michigan Project is the first statewide study to explore how Michigan’s public schools are responding to ASD, the fastest-growing developmental disability in the country. Summer Ferreri, assistant professor of special education, and Sara (Bolt) Witmer, associate professor of school psychology, found that:

  • 41 percent of Michigan educators were not using Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA
  • 44 percent were not using Social Stories.

The researchers held a media roundtable with reporters on Sept. 12, 2011 and presented their findings to the State Board of Education the next day.
“Both Applied Behavior Analysis and Social Stories are established, evidence-based practices for teaching students with ASD, so this was an important finding,” Ferreri said. “There are more than 15,000 students with ASD in Michigan classrooms, so the findings are important to thousands of Michigan families and to state policymakers as well.”
Ferreri and Witmer sampled a wide range of ASD educators – from paraprofessionals to teachers – across the state. They also sampled the parents of students with ASD to determine how they viewed their child’s school experience. They met considerable roadblocks in attempting to access statewide data on students with ASD, however, and concluded that better access is crucial to determine whether the services schools provide are actually helping students succeed.
Suzanne Wilson, a University Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Education, said autism education is one of the most pressing issues facing educators today.
“While autism rates have rapidly increased, many new and experienced teachers have little to no experience working with children with autism,” Wilson said. “Without the appropriate education, new teachers could, at worst, marginalize these students and, at best, be supportive but not effective.”
Researchers also found that:

  • Even when educators reported using effective strategies, most didn’t use them regularly. Only 32 percent of ABA users studied employed the technique at least one to five hours per week.
  • Many Michigan students with ASD do not have access to the curriculum offered other students. Twenty-six percent of the targeted students with ASD never or rarely had learning opportunities that reflected the general education curriculum.
  • Many educators have low academic expectations for students with ASD, even though high expectations are an important aspect of effective teaching. One-third of the 194 Michigan teaching professionals responding said their students with ASD wouldn’t meet any grade-level achievement standards.

“We know that there are thousands of Michigan teachers doing their best to help students with ASD get the education they need to be successful,” said Witmer. “These findings highlight some important practices that, if more frequently used, could help teachers serve these students better.”
The $310,000 study was funded by Eileen and Ron Weiser, the Kellogg Foundation and the Skillman Foundation. Eileen Weiser is currently a member of the Michigan Board of Education.
— Andy Henion


ASD certification at MSU

Teachers can earn the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) endorsement through the MSU College of Education, either alone or as part of the online master’s program in Special Education. Visit