In 1997, the Pennsylvania Department of
Education held a focus group of parents
with autistic children throughout the
state to learn more about their needs.
George Shadie of Luzerne County was one
of those parents.
"I was frustrated with the school systems
and the child development systems," said
Shadie. "Children with autism were diagnosed
with retardation or schizophrenia. ...
There were no meaningful services for
children with autism."
The focus group said they needed effective
research-based strategies and programs
to ensure professionals were getting the
appropriate training in those strategies.
Parents pointed toward Applied Behavior
Analysis (ABA), a strong evidenced-based
approach for helping autistic children.
Used in everything from organizational
management to phonics, it is a science
and discipline devoted to the understanding
and improvement of human behavior. It
includes elements and strategies, such
as reinforcement, prompting and shaping,
among many others.
"ABA was a validated approach," said Dr.
Fran Warkomski, director of the Pennsylvania
Training and Technical Assistance Network
(PaTTAN) in the Pennsylvania Department
of Education. "We didn't have that methodology
in the state." PaTTAN turned to the Penn
State Outreach Office of Statewide Programs.
with autism learn through strategies
of Applied Behavior Analysis.
Penn State Professor Emeritus of Special
Education Dr. John Neisworth, academic
director of the ABA certificate program--which
last year won the National Award for Outstanding
Credit Program from the University Continuing
Education Association--said, "Autism has
gained a lot of attention nationally.
Because of that and the applicability
of ABA, Outreach has made autism a priority."
In fact, autism--a disorder of behavior
and communication--is more common than
childhood cancer, cystic fibrosis and
multiple sclerosis combined, according
to the Autism Society of America. One
in every 250 babies born today will develop
some form of autism, which means that
an estimated 1.5 million Americans (children
and adults) have the disability.
Depending on when a child is diagnosed,
early and intensive treatment can bring
improvement. "Although that doesn't mean
older children can't be helped," said
While running a summer institute in Ohio,
Neisworth met a mother of an autistic
child who told him that thanks to "24-hours-a-day"
of ABA treatment, her 6-year-old daughter,
who was diagnosed with autism at age 2,
has recently lost that diagnosis and graduated
from a mainstream kindergarten class.
"ABA saved our lives," said Ronda Veltri.
Mary McIntosh of Erie also credits ABA
for her son Matthew's improvement. A behavioral
specialist who attended the Penn State
Autism Institute to study ABA, McIntosh
has two children who were diagnosed with
autism. Matthew, now 13, was diagnosed
with autism at age 3. Thanks to intensive
ABA in a program and at home, Matthew
is now high-functioning--he even recently
tied for third place in a countywide spelling
bee. McIntosh said that her other son,
age 12, has also shown improvement with
While not all children may reach the same
level of success as Matthew or Veltri's
daughter, "You're hoping for the most
independence and integration as possible,"
said Penn State's Dr. Pamela Wolfe, academic
coordinator for the Professional Development
in Autism certificate program--which provides
advanced training in the area of autism
spectrum disorders--and codirector of
a master's level training grant related
to autism and communication disorders.
"You are looking for a quality of life."
Children are diagnosed under a wide umbrella--from
the child who is uncommunicative to a
child who can function in a mainstream
classroom, but perhaps has certain quirks.
The newest Penn State project to address
the issue is a remake of the Professional
Development in Autism Certificate program.
Under development by Wolfe and Neisworth,
the first courses are due in January;
the program will incorporate practical,
hands-on information and be available
Neisworth and Wolfe also have completed
The Autism Encyclopedia, to be released
by Brookes Publishing this fall.
Largely due to the success and quality
of the ABA certificate program, PaTTAN
approached Penn State to produce anothe
certificate program: Reading Instruction
for Special Education, which via distance
education trains teachers to help grades-four-through-12
students who are struggling in reading.
"It was felt that teachers of struggling
readers needed to be taught evidenced-based
practices," said Penn State Professor
of Education Dr. Charles Hughes, who put
together the program with other faculty
from special education and educational
psychology, along with consultants from
the University of Pittsburgh and Lehigh
Another distance education program addressing
special needs is Assistive Technologies,
offered by Penn State Berks-Lehigh Valley
College Continuing Education. The program
trains those working in the health-care
field and in school districts to use the
devices that make everyday life easier.
Those devices can include everything from
hearing aids to an item that helps a child
grasp a pencil.
State offers options for teachers
to get extra training.
A device to help teachers themselves is
in the works as part of a new Penn State
project funded by PaTTAN. Special Education
teachers will be able to record and track
results of progress assessments into Toshiba
hand-held PDAs, which will create usable
"The software will save an enormous amount
of the teacher's time," said Todd Roth,
project manager. The pilot program begins
in local school districts in February.
Many other projects are in the works:
a certificate program in math; a video
for doctors' offices that will help employees
recognize early signs of autism; a tool
kit for parents of children with autism;
and a curriculum that will help children
in mainstream classes understand autism.
The initial collaboration with the state
on ABA put Penn State on the map in the
area of special needs--and projects such
as these enforce the University's prominent
"It's been an overwhelmingly positive
partnership that's led to improvement
in professional development and services
for teachers and parents," said Warkomski.