New Autism Program Hopes to Solve Burnout, Shortages
$1.25M grant funds Project ASPIRE, aimed at creating holistic training approach for professionals working with people with autism
Last summer, as the laughter of children filled the Music building courtyard and Cal State East Bay speech pathology students led area families through a day of Pioneer Pals summer camp, professors Shubha Kashinath and Meaghan McCollow started hatching a plan.
Several months later, thanks in part to a $1.25 million grant from the Department of Education, Project ASPIRE was born.
ASPIRE, which stands for Autism Specialists Pioneering Inclusive Research-based Education, aims to address the shortage of special education teachers and speech pathologists trained to work with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
According to a 2020 report from Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in 54 children have been diagnosed with autism. But schools and programs throughout California are struggling to find teachers. And those who are in classrooms may not be fully or adequately trained.
In the past five years, according to data from the Learning Policy Institute, California districts have reported two of every three new teachers enter the year without having completed their preparation, never mind having extra training specific to working with students with autism.
For example, in the 2017-18 school year alone, California issued 4,776 substandard special education credentials and permits such as intern credentials, provisional intern permits, limited assignment permits, short-term staff permits, and waivers.
Kashinath said there is also a severe shortage of qualified speech language pathologists to serve children with autism in school settings. As a result, school districts often rely on temporary staffing agencies to provide specialized services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy, options that are neither cost-effective solutions nor address the core issue of preparing qualified personnel.
A Natural Collaboration
Seeing a need in both of their graduate training programs to provide more resources to students looking to work with people with autism, Kashinath and McCollow began working on Project ASPIRE.
The training grant provides funding for 16 students a year (eight from special education and eight from speech pathology) to take additional courses, attend conferences, work in clinical settings, and participate in service-learning related projects in the East Bay.
That final component is key, McCollow and Kashinath said. Whereas typically special education students would be working in a classroom for example, the goal for the service learning is to have them working in a different role and capacity. They might accompany a family to the farmer’s market or serve as conversation partners to adults with autism as part of Cal State East Bay’s College LINK program.
“We want to help students learn about and relate to individuals with autism in settings that they wouldn’t normally see them,” Kashinath said. “It allows them to appreciate the full lived experience of a family or an individual with autism. Seeing the individual as a whole can provide knowledge and perspective that can guide working with students with autism in classroom.”
The idea of creating a holistic approach to better help individuals with autism is not new, Kashinath said. However, it can be challenging to implement in graduate programs, where due to several external factors such as time constraints or clinical locations, students can be pigeon-holed into a focus area or setting.
And, research shows focusing on an individual’s lived experience is key to successfully supporting families of people with autism. A 2015 study published in "Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities" by Anne-Marie DePape and Sally Lindsay, for example, found that while secondhand accounts from parents suggest that autism affects many aspects of life, little is known from the first-person perspective. When synthesizing the accounts of children, adolescents and adults with ASD however, the pair found four themes emerged: perception of self, interactions with others, experiences at school, and factors related to employment.
The holistic approach, and encouragement for students to experience the ‘lived experience’ of their clients, is exciting for graduate student Prema Polit, who serves as a graduate assistant on Project ASPIRE.
“One of the things that is really true, is autism is a spectrum,” Polit said. “Every individual is very different and has different strengths and weaknesses and that in the process of learning more about how to support them, it’s really important to listen, to listen to what their experiences are, and the ways we can better support them as professionals.”
Combating Burnout, Building Networks
Having students from different degrees collaborate and take courses in each other's subject area aims to break down silos and better replicate how students may work as professionals once they graduate.
“Typically special educators and speech pathologists would work together at schools, but in graduate programs, there are limited opportunities to learn how to work together as part of an interprofessional team unless there are combined coursework or training opportunities,” Kashinath said. “This grant is pushing forward that interdisciplinary collaboration.”
Another key component to the program is the opportunity to connect students to one another in an effort to combat the burnout facing special education teachers and professionals working with individuals with different needs.
Research from the Learning Policy Institute shows that during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, one in five teachers in special education left the profession, the state or their schools.
“Attrition of special education teachers is associated with inadequate preparation and professional development, challenging working conditions that include large caseloads, overwhelming workload and compliance obligations, inadequate support, and compensation that is too low to mitigate high costs of living and student debt loads,” the report found.
Coinciding with that loss is a statewide increase of 13 percent in the number of students identified with disabilities.
“In California, we estimate the attrition from the profession — which has grown to about 9 percent annually — accounts for about 88 percent of annual demand and drives shortages across subject areas, particularly in high-need schools,” the report stated.
Students considering entering the field are not unaware of the turnover, or the challenges they face. But many are driven by a passion for giving back to their communities or a personal connection to the field.
“I think people who go into this work are helpers,” Polit said. “They are people who care a lot about other people.”
She added one of the things that stood out to her about the first round of cohort students for the new ASPIRE program was that many people have connections to individuals with autism who may have given them “a kick onto this path.”
“Others have just found that this is a way they can do some kind of good,” she said.
McCollow and Kashinath are hopeful that by integrating the graduate students in the ASPIRE program, providing them with additional training, access to workshops and community-based clinical experience, they will not only gain experience, but they’ll also form bonds and networks they can rely on throughout their careers.
“By building those connections now, we hope to ease the heartbreak of our candidates who feel strongly that this is something they want to do, but [the work] may be more than they thought it was going to be,” McCollow said.
In the coming months, McCollow and Kashinath are hopeful their students will begin working with community partners and diving into the first year of Project ASPIRE. Some work has been postponed or is in the process of pivoting due to COVID-19 (for example, they aren’t sure if the camp where they realized this partnership should happen, will take place this summer), but the pair is confident they have an exciting year ahead.
“Of course, we would ideally have our students out in the community right now,” McCollow said.
Some of the workshops students were scheduled to attend may be rescheduled or moved to a virtual format. And in the meantime, the group is eager and still able to meet on Zoom and begin understanding what it means to work on an interdisciplinary team.
“We are thrilled,” Kashinath said. “The grant’s goal aligns perfectly with the university’s priorities of contributing to a qualified regional workforce as most of our trainees are already or will be employed in the East Bay and greater Bay Area region. Not only that, the grant will offer our diverse students opportunities to lead in their communities and reach underserved populations who need qualified educators. They will be leading in jobs where they are reflective of the individuals they are going to serve.”