Eastern Michigan University Considers Offering Degree in ASD

January 7, 2008

December 27, 2007; Detroit Free Press: No one knows for sure how the brain of an autistic child works, but Ellen Mayle -- the mother of two 12-year-old autistic sons -- thinks she's got a pretty good idea.

Imagine, she tells her sons' frustrated teachers and principals, that you're sitting in class and your mouth has been duct-taped shut so you can't communicate. There's sawdust in your pants so you can't sit still. And the lights are flipping on and off, scattering your thoughts. Hers is a bit of the understanding that Eastern Michigan University is trying to spread to Michigan's teachers.

Known nationally for its education degrees, EMU might soon begin offering a master of arts degree in autism spectrum disorders. It will be one of a growing number of programs that teach educators how to communicate better with autistic students. EMU and several other universities have offered 18 hours in online courses for students working toward an endorsement -- essentially certifying that they had special training -- in autism. Oakland University also has a master's program in autism. EMU's new program will demand at least 39 credit hours geared toward teaching autistic students, and a graduate's thesis must focus on autism.

In a state with a critical shortfall of special-education teachers, that's welcome news, said Mayle, who, like other parents, laments that she's had to fight understaffed and overloaded education systems at times to get services for autistic children. "If parents don't advocate, those kids just get thrown away," said Mayle of Fowlerville.

Part of the problem is a lack of awareness of how wide-ranging autism spectrum disorder is, said Sally Burton-Hoyle, assistant professor of special education at EMU. Formerly the executive director of the Autism Society of Michigan, Burton-Hoyle was hired by EMU in 2006 to develop its autism program.

According to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year, 1 in 150 children have some variation of the disorder -- from those who are low-functioning and can't communicate verbally to those with a high IQ whose autism makes them socially awkward.

Higher education is grappling with how best to train teachers not only to understand but to educate those students, said Cathy Pratt, board chairman of the Autism Society of America. Certainly, there's a lack of resources and funding in schools. But basic awareness is a first step, and that doesn't cost much, Burton-Hoyle said.

For teachers, it means understanding that autistic children often need tangible learning cues -- a masking-tape strip on the floor to show them where to line up, or color-coded bins to organize their day, for example. It's realizing that some students can be overwhelmed by a simple distraction -- the hiss of a fluorescent light, the smell from a cafeteria. When Anne Richardson's autistic son, Michael, started at a new school a few years ago, he felt comfort in carrying a Disney videotape around with him.

Michael couldn't explain the relief the video gave to him; no one could. But the Brighton mother knew this: carrying the tape muted the anxiety that could send him into a raging tantrum. But staff took the tape away, and Michael's calm dissolved. "Why take the tape?" Richardson asked staff. She was told her son didn't need it. "They didn't understand," she said. "He did need it." A review committee of the President's Council, State Universities of Michigan has signed off on the degree. Should EMU's regents give approval at their January meeting, the university will begin offering the degree immediately.