Marie Black, a registered behavior technician and doctoral student at the University of Virginia, guided Caroline Thomas, 3, as she sorted dominoes, Legos and plastic rings into three piles at the Virginia Institute of Autism’s Outpatient Behavioral Services building in Albemarle County. After each correct answer, Black said, “Look at you, girlfriend!” or “Wow! Nice job, Caroline!”
Black isn’t the only one excited about Caroline’s progress. Caroline’s mother, Ashley Thomas, said that in the 1½ years since they started coming to the Virginia Institute of Autism, “She really is a totally different kid. She was quiet, she was fearful, she had like three foods she ate. Now, she’s playing, she’s singing all the time — and she’s happy! That’s the biggest thing.”
Caroline is one of a growing number of children with autism in Virginia. The Center for Disease Control recently estimated that one in 68 children have autism, a number up 30 percent from the previous estimate. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Education identified special education as the most critical teacher shortage category in the state. This growing crisis in special education has motivated the recent partnership between VIA and UVa’s Curry School of Education.
“[Students] can get the book smarts up on the hill there, in Mr. Jefferson’s university, but then they can come here and they can really see the practical application of it,” said Ethan Long, VIA’s executive director. Long and Bill Therrien, a professor of special education at the Curry School, started expanding the vision of the partnership around 2014.
Therrien teaches two classes that involve practicums with VIA. One is an introductory special education course with an observation component at VIA’s Jump Start Clinic. The clinic serves children recently diagnosed with autism who would otherwise be on a waitlist for services. In exchange for the opportunity, UVa is hosting the Jump Start Clinic on Grounds.
“I [encourage] all students that are getting a teaching certification to get some experience with autism,” Therrien said. “Engaging with students with autism is really important, regardless of whether someone’s going to be working in a school for kids with autism or not.”
UVa is happy with the partnership, too. In December, the Board of Visitors awarded the Curry School $6.2 million to do autism research for three years.
Therrien’s other course, a behavioral and social intervention course, is for special education majors. That course involves designing and implementing programs for VIA’s school.
For Black, the partnership keeps her research focused on solving problems for families. In particular, Black said, she likes to focus on parent needs and training.
One of Thomas’s challenges at home, she said, is getting Caroline to eat.
“She was gagging a lot with foods. Introducing a new food was especially scary for her,” Thomas said. “She would sit [at the dinner table] all night and not eat these foods.”
This crisis at home prompted Thomas to start taking classes herself at the outpatient clinic. Under Black’s tutelage, Thomas has managed to introduce Caroline to new foods, including oranges.
“[Black]’s helped a lot with introducing [food]. First, just putting the food in front of her so she sees it while she’s eating something else. Then, we try a little bite and get her used to the texture,” Thomas said. “Now, she can eat half an orange slice, which sounds like not a big deal, but when it comes to a child like Caroline, it’s huge. And she’s not gagging, she’s enjoying it.”
Black said she wants to design a session of parent training at VIA for her dissertation. She said that too much training could overwhelm and discourage parents.
“We throw a lot at parents. We ask them to do homework, collect data for us, try out protocols at home,” Black said. “A lot of times, parents drop out of parent training. They just don’t have the time or other resources to do all the things that we ask them to do, so they don’t end up benefitting from parent training.”
Thomas, who stays at home with Caroline, said that she has not felt overwhelmed by the training sessions. Still, the hands-on lessons have been the most valuable for her.
“It’s one thing to have someone tell you what to do, and then you go home and you’re like, ‘Wait, am I doing this right?’” Thomas said. “To be here and have someone watching you, so they can say,
‘Well, let’s try doing this and see if this helps more’ — that helps a ton.”
Thomas said that Caroline loved working with Black even before she was Caroline’s main behavior technician.
“There are a lot of reasons why teachers do not persist in their profession. They do not feel they are equipped with the skills to handle student behaviors or to make a meaningful difference.”
Youjia Hua, associate professor of education, UVA
“Caroline used to follow [Black] around because she loves her so much.” Thomas said. “It’s nice to see when the therapist has so much energy. You can tell when they love their work.”
But the field of special education faces similar challenges to education as a whole, with high turnover and low instructor diversity.
UVa’s Curry School professors are hoping their partnership with VIA will help bring more professionals into autism education.
“When you think about the field of special education, it’s very broad, so sometimes it’s about finding the right fit,” Therrien said. “Hopefully, we’ll get 15-20 prospective teachers in there every year, and some of them will find that’s something that they want to do.”
One of the future initiatives in the VIA-Curry partnership is offering a Board Certified Applied Behavior Analysis program. The course, which is intended to start in the fall, will have coursework online and practicum hours at VIA.
“There are a lot of individuals who work at VIA who don’t have that certification. Now, they can kind of grow their own and have them come through the program,” Therrien said.
“We are trying to address this as a supply-end issue. How do we provide training so that teachers who directly work with students may become more effective?” said Youjia Hua, an associate professor at
UVa and one of the Curry School’s latest hires. “Research shows that there are a lot of reasons why teachers do not persist in their profession. They do not feel they are equipped with the skills to handle student behaviors or to make a meaningful difference.”
Like local public schools, VIA is rewriting its pay scale to incentivize instructors to stay.
VIA’s school has one instructor per student and one teacher per classroom. Teachers are required by the state to have a bachelor’s degree and to pass a teacher certification program.
In the past year, starting salaries for instructors have increased from $25,000 to $28,000. The new salaries also bump up to $30,000 when instructors become registered behavioral technicians, which is required training offered at VIA.
“[Turnover] is definitely something we’ve been talking a lot about,” said Lauren Haskins, VIA’s quality improvement manager. Haskins first got involved with VIA as a psychology major at UVa. She has also been a classroom supervisor and training manager before her current position. “You don’t want to make the same amount of money after you’ve worked somewhere for five years.”
Meanwhile, Ashley Thomas is looking forward to getting her daughter toilet-trained. “But I’m not in a rush,” she added. “It’s just one of those things. It’s going to happen when it happens.”