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Autism expertise

Autism — the fastest-growing disability among the state's schoolchildren — demands specialized instruction with intervention specifically tailored for the disorder's complex variety of manifestations, experts say.

Yet, Oregon, like most other states, neither requires nor offers an autism credential to special education teachers and autism specialists.

And special education teachers generally are inadequately prepared to teach students with autism, according to a 2001 report by the National Research Council.

"We are faced with a tremendous challenge in the state of meeting the needs of such a diverse population because there are so many different needs in the continuum, depending on the grade level, age and diagnosis," said Mary Ann Winter-Messiers, a University of Oregon special education professor. "It requires a lot of work and understanding to meet those needs."

In Oregon, a master's degree in special education typically involves only brief coverage of autism, said Joel Arick, special education teacher at Portland State University. No specific courses on autism are required.

"Autism is barely touched upon," said Julie York, student services director at the Medford School District. "Sometimes we have to spend hours and hours of training on new staff because autism is very specific."

Last year, a group of autism experts, including Winter-Messiers, asked the state's teacher licensure agency to approve an optional autism endorsement.

The Oregon Teachers Standards and Practices Commission tabled the proposal indefinitely in November in the face of opposition from rural school administrators, who feared the credential would evolve into a mandatory one.

A mandatory credential would increase the difficulty of finding special education teachers, of which there are a critical shortage, said Vickie Chamberlain, TSPC executive director.

Instead, the commission decided to leave certification up to individual school districts, which may individually require particular autism training.

Two states, Florida and New York, have approved autism endorsements to special education licensure.

In Oregon, there are autism training programs for teachers at Portland State University and the University of Oregon. Portland State University offers an autism certificate involving five courses and a practicum.

The only other source of specialized autism training in the state is at University of Oregon, which offers a 46-credit training program.

Licensure is tied to neither program. Autism specialists who aid teachers in coming up with interventions for children may have no formal training in autism other than what is required under a general special education teaching license, though most have on-the-job experience.

"That's kind of scary," said Jane Norris, mother of 6-year-old Elena who has autism. "They're going to have to do something because autism is the fastest-growing special need in children."

The Oregon Department of Education has been seeking to increase the availability of training by funding a Portland State University program in which teachers can attend workshops and observe teaching practices at 27 regional model sites. Southern Oregon's site is the Asante Child Development Center.

The baffling neurological disorder manifests itself in various ways, and not all children exhibit the same symptoms. The most severe generally appear to be not paying attention, they fixate on one interest, often are running or twirling and sometimes have communication impairments.

The causes and cures of the disorder remain a mystery even to scientists.

Students with autism represent nearly 8 percent of special education pupils in the state, but the numbers are growing every year. On average, one in 122 children has autism in Oregon, compared to an average of 1 in 150 in the United States.

"We feel we need to continue working on providing the best services we can to these students," Winter-Messiers said. "One way is to encourage teachers to seek the training they need to be the most effective they can be with children with autism, and an endorsement encourages that."

York agrees.

"I was very excited when I heard about the proposal because there would have been a couple of different avenues for people with experience to get the endorsement," York said.

But Chuck Bennett, governmental relations director for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators, said the endorsement might "make it impossible for districts to fill positions."

"It would be wonderful to have a (doctorate) teaching mathematics," Bennett said. "As it is we don't have enough people to teach students with special needs."

Proponents of an autism endorsement said they will continue to seek approval of the credential.

"We are disappointed that it has been tabled," Winter-Messiers said. "We also realize deep change takes time, coming around again and gaining understanding among all the stakeholders: higher eduction, administrators, special education teachers, parents and students."

Resources on the Web include Portland State University at www.ceed.pdx.edu/autism and the University of Oregon at education.uoregon.edu/field.htm?id=93.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.

Jim Norris takes a few minutes from work to read to his daughter Elena, 6, in her room Wednesday. pennell photo