New approach to teaching children with autism earns federal backing
Project Common Ground, a faculty-led program to better prepare speech-language pathologists for success with children with autism, was awarded $1.25 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education.
Assistant Professor of Special Education Betty Yu and Associate Professor of Special Education Pamela Wolfberg are collaborating on the project, which will provide broader training for SF State graduate students learning to be speech-language pathologists. Wolfberg and Yu aim to build a model program to help family members, as well as speech professionals, achieve a higher lever of communication with children identified with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
SF State speech pathology graduate students will study and practice different approaches that will help them better understand and identify the core characteristics and challenges of ASD.
"There couldn’t be a better time to pair the disciplines of special education and communicative disorders to train our students," Wolfberg said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one child out of 110 in the U.S. is identified with ASD. Yu said that the number of cases reported in California over the past decade has increased by 273 percent. "It's imperative that we find more effective approaches to teaching things as crucial to children with ASD as speech and language," Wolfberg added.
The program will also focus on expanding the learning environment for children with ASD. "We believe that therapists and teachers should learn to adapt to the child’s environment," said Yu, who specializes in teaching techniques for persons with communicative disorders. Play will be an integral part of the process. Wolfberg, who developed a play therapy model for children with ASD called Integrated Play Groups, has found that children with autism learn more effectively in play settings with other children than in classrooms limited to children with ASD.
"We know that children with ASD working one-on-one with a speech-language therapist can memorize the word for ball after looking at a flash card with the word and picture on it, " Yu said. "But that doesn't go far enough because these children are still at a loss when it comes to actually using the word in a sentence to communicate a direction or desire such as 'throw me the ball.'"
In addition to play settings, speech-language pathology students will conduct some of their work in the homes of their clients with ASD. "We want to encourage family and friends of children with ASD to become more invested in the process and develop a deeper understanding of what the child needs to learn," Yu said. She noted that the diversity of SF State students will help Project Common Ground reach out to children and families of more diverse communities, particularly new immigrants. Yu said about half of the College of Education's 100 students earning master's degrees in special education are fluent in at least one other language besides English.
Project Common Ground will involve 16 speech-language pathology graduate students a year over the next five years to produce as many as 80 qualified professionals. The funding of approximately $250,000 each year is part of an $11.5 million U.S. Department of Education allocation to help train educators to improve services and results for children with disabilities.