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UGA starts degree program for teaching students with autism

LAWRENCEVILLE - The University of Georgia is starting a graduate degree program this fall that will prepare educators to work with secondary-age students with autism.

The Collaborative Adolescent Autism Teacher Training (CAATT) Project - a partnership between UGA and school systems in Gwinnett, Madison and Clarke counties - will teach graduate students research-based strategies to prepare them to meet the challenges of working with adolescents with autism.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that is part of a group known as autism spectrum disorders. One in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"There's a need for specialized training on how to structure the classroom, how to respond to these kids when they behave inappropriately and how to design instruction that will facilitate the learning of new skills," said David Gast, a professor of special education, who co-founded the Collaborative Personnel Preparation in Autism (COPPA) program at UGA in 2003, which trains teachers to work with elementary-age students with autism.

Gast will co-direct the CAATT Project with Kevin Ayres, an assistant professor of special education. A four-year, $793,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education will fund fellowships for up to 12 graduate students a year.

Gwinnett County Public Schools has partnered with UGA for several years on the COPPA program, said Susan White, executive director of special education and psychological services.

White said partnerships between colleges and school systems are good to have, because they keep the school districts on the cutting-edge and the colleges in touch with what the needs are in classrooms.

"As autism occurrences have increased, we have to adjust our teaching strategies to meet all their needs," White said. "There are very few programs nationally at the college level that focus on autism, and having that partnership makes us a starship program."

Gwinnett County Public Schools serves about 1,500 students with autism, White said. Between 17,000 and 18,000 students receive special education services.

Autism spectrum disorders occur in all racial, ethnic and social groups and are four times more likely to strike boys than girls. It is defined by significant impairments in social interaction and communication and the presence of unusual behaviors and interests. The number of children diagnosed with autism has grown about 17 percent a year across the country and could reach four million in the next 10 years, according to U.S. Department of Education reports.

"Comprehensive public school programs for students with autism must provide high quality, evidence-based intervention from birth to age 21 and to achieve this goal, schools need highly qualified teachers," Ayres said. "Preparation and specialization in teaching secondary-age students is distinct from that of elementary-age students and this expansion is significant."

For more information, visit www.coe.uga.edu/csse/spe/caatt.html.