Dr. Wehman featured as RTD guest columnist

Educating students with autism: unlocking the potential

Dr. Paul Wehman  – a professor in the VCU School of Education's Department of Counseling and Special Education, and director of the VCU Autism Center for Excellence – recently appeared as a guest columnist in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, sharing his thoughts on how to unlock the potential of students with autism.

By Paul Wehman, Dec. 6, 2018

Autism-Story-1200x798Recently the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an editorial on the challenge of funding educational services for students with autism. This editorial sparked much conversation in the educational community. While well-meaning, it did not fully grasp dramatic advances in public school services over the past decade. Unfortunately, it also did not ask the right question: How can we as a society not fund services that will lead these young people to become productive, employed citizens in their communities?

Over the past decade, we have learned more about how to implement interventions using applied behavior analysis in public schools that help students struggling with behavioral challenges. These interventions frequently replace behaviors with constructive social skills. At Virginia Commonwealth University’s Autism Center for Excellence (VCU-ACE), we regularly go into classrooms across the commonwealth and work directly with teachers to increase their capacity to help students with autism.

Consider Nicholas (fictional name), a 7-year-old student with autism. Nicholas started the school year with his second-grade peers. By October, he began to demonstrate seriously problematic behaviors. The school team, perplexed by the change, moved him to his own classroom with one teacher just for him. They even considered an expensive private school placement. Instead, VCU-ACE staff worked directly with his educators to develop an individualized behavior plan. Within six weeks, he was back in his second-grade classroom with a behavior plan that provided opportunities for more structured learning, addressed his need for development of social skills, and offered his teacher strategies to help Nicholas become a meaningful part of his classroom community.

This type of help allows him to stay in his home school with his peers, and, of course, costs much less than a private placement. Students like Nicholas abound with potential and his gifts are best realized in school with his peers. With a quality education, his potential to be a vital part of his community is maximized.

Nicholas is not unusual; he is one of 236 students and hundreds of teachers who received that kind of help from VCU-ACE last year. In fact, we have been able to help 95 percent of students with autism, like Nicholas, stay in their public schools. We have provided these services in more than 35 Virginia school districts.

We have learned through our research on the employment of youth with autism that students who come from inclusive settings are better prepared for the workplace. Employers across Virginia report that their employees with autism are valued contributors to their businesses.

In recent research, we tested the impact of inclusive business internships for high school students with autism. In this study, 81 percent of the individuals who participated in the internships gained employment in the community. In fact, the retention rate of employment for those individuals was an impressive 90.6 percent 12 months after graduating from high school. Also, because they were engaged in valued activities and around co-workers with appropriate behaviors, they also showed more appropriate behavior.

Instead of cost being the central issue determining educational programming for students with autism, it is imperative instead to ask: How can their fullest potential be developed? I know how able so many of these students are because I have seen their transformations in classrooms and workplaces.

Through our work with school leaders, teachers, and principals across the commonwealth, we have empirical data showing that even those with more challenging behaviors respond to applied behavior analysis delivered in public school. In fact, 15 school districts around Richmond have recently initiated a regional program that uses consultation from VCU-ACE to combine resources and meet the needs of the most challenged students, allowing them to be educated near their home schools.

This new and dramatic approach allows these students to learn closest to their peers while elevating the level of help they can receive near their homes. The students also have the flexibility to be educated with their peers when appropriate, and are given the opportunity to self-regulate outside the classroom if they become disruptive or if a different learning environment, like a quiet library, better suits the moment.

Consider the lack of opportunities for Nicholas if he were not able to be educated with his peers. He would be less likely to go to college or to work at Walgreens, VCU Health System, Bon Secours Health System, Dominion Energy, Markel, or so many other employers who want these young people as employees.

We have to ask ourselves: How do we want to spend our taxpayer dollars when educating children with autism? I vote for unleashing human potential, happiness, and the satisfaction that comes from going to school, building relationships, and establishing self-esteem. We know we can do just that with more energy, investment, and empowerment of teachers and families.

Dr. Paul Wehman is director of the VCU Autism Center for Excellence, and may be contacted at pwehman@vcu.edu.

Richmond Times-Dispatch Story