Friday, October 31, 2008

Alabama uses distance learning to educate teachers about autism

From the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama:

Alabama has come up with a low-cost way to educate teachers about how to help the rapidly growing number of autistic children in public schools.

The program will train teachers through the state's distance learning program that is used to offer foreign languages and advanced placement courses to high school students across the state.

The leaders of the Alabama Autism Task Force, Lt. Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. and state Rep. Cam Ward joined officials from the state Department of Education to announce the program Wednesday. They said Alabama will be the second state after Pennsylvania to use this approach.

Autism is a brain development disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication. It usually appears by the time a child is 3.

Folsom said Alabama's public schools have about 1,000 students with autism-related disorders. That represents a 3,000 percent increase since 1990, he said.

Teachers want to help the students but they often lack the training, he said.Ward, R-Albaster, said using the distance learning system is an inexpensive way to address a problem when state government doesn't have funds to start new programs. Using the distance learning technology is also cheaper than sending teachers to conferences, he said."Funding won't be an issue for this," he said.

Jennifer Muller, executive director of the Autism Society of Alabama, called the state's plans "very exciting."Dr. Mabrey Whetstone, the department's director of special education, and Earlene Patton, an administrator of distance learning, said the training should be available when the next school year starts in August 2009.

"This is a great need for our state," Whetstone said.

The special education director said the Department of Education plans to work with universities to develop the training and hopes that teachers will one day be able to get course credit for completing it.

Ward, a Republican, and Folsom, a Democrat, began working together on autism two years ago because it is a family issue for them. Ward has a daughter with autism. Folsom was joined at the news conference by his niece, Bama Folsom Hager, whose son has autism.

Ward said he hopes the Alabama Autism Task Force will become a model for working across party lines to find low-cost ways to address issues.