The Nation’s Highest Autism Rates Are Found in Utah; Master’s-Prepared Teachers Answer the Call
The dramatic increase in diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has had an impact on school systems around the country, but nowhere more than in Utah. A 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study tracked an astounding 78 percent jump in ASD cases in Utah, working out to one in every 47 school age children afflicted with some degree of autism.
The rate was the highest recorded in the United States, and has left the Utah State Board of Education’s (USBE’s) Special Education Services section (SES) scrambling to cope with the sudden influx of special needs kids. According to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Larry Shumway, an autistic student is likely to be found in every classroom in the state.
The 2004 federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) began tracking the performance of every state in terms of how it delivers special education services, and Utah started off with a solid track record. From 2004 to 2008, the state was ranked within the top two categorized for its performance – “Meets Requirements” or “Needs Assistance,” avoiding the dreaded “Needs Intervention” classification during those years.
But the ASD epidemic, combined with the funding crisis introduced by the Great Recession, hit SES hard. The IDEA rating dropped to “Needs Intervention” in 2009 and has stayed there ever since.
Responding in the Face of Adversity with Multi-tiered Support Systems
As if the increase in special needs students wasn’t challenge enough, Utah has also been dealing with a chronic shortage of qualified teachers. In short-staffed schools in particular, teachers in the system need advanced, master’s-level training to handle the demands of special needs populations effectively—and they are getting help.
SES has implemented a system they call the Utah Multi-Tiered System of Supports (UMTSS) to assist both teachers and parents in locating resources for teaching special needs students. Developed using funding from the IDEA program, UMTSS is intended to provide resources and best practices in the field for local education authorities. The system collects data for data-based decision-making and emphasizes team-based problem solving, so no teacher has to go it alone.
Thinking Outside the Box Helps Special Needs Students Fit In
SES has discovered that keeping special needs students in general education classrooms with their age-group peers as much as possible leads to better outcomes overall in special education. This principle, known as least restrictive environment, requires master’s-educated special education teachers to think on their feet to help adapt class materials and activities to formats accessible to their special needs students.
The creative aspect to this type of teaching can come out in unexpected and heartwarming ways. In Murray, special education teacher Kailee Sandberg helped arrange for one of her students to participate in a game with the high school football team. The student, Brian Herrera, has difficulty communicating and integrating socially, but at the prompting of his friend and football player Alex Hart, Sandberg got Herrera onto the field for one game.
With the cooperation of the opposing team, Herrera received a kickoff and ran the ball back for a touchdown. According to Sandberg, the activity helped Herrera improve both socially and with his speaking issues, making him an all-around happier kid.
Although not strictly an academic endeavor, the game, and the lengths that Sandberg reached to help Herrera outside the classroom, speak to the extent that master’s-educated teachers in Utah are finding unconventional ways to help their students succeed.