The following program spotlight, written by first-grade teacher and special education and teaching doctoral candidate, Sydney Castonguay, KU M.S.E. '20, discusses how The University Of Kansas' Autism Certificate is improving her pedagogy and her education career.
My name is Sydney Castonguay. Currently, I am a first-grade teacher for the Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Massachusetts, and a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education at Slippery Rock University researching females with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).
I obtained my graduate certificate in ASD from the University of Kansas in December 2020 and a University of Kansas master’s degree program in special education: High-Incidence Disabilities in Summer 2020. I also hold two bachelor’s degrees from Westfield State University in Elementary Education and Liberal Studies and I am licensed to teach Elementary Education (1-6), English as a Second Language (PreK-6), and Moderate Disabilities (PreK-6) in the state of Massachusetts.
The Course That Made The Difference
My enrollment in the graduate autism certification program happened somewhat by chance. I was originally enrolled in a licensure master’s degree program but decided to unenroll and just finish my degree. Switching programs required me to take two additional courses in place of a practicum, one of which was SPED 760: Introduction to ASD. I fell in love with the coursework. I have always worked as a general education teacher in an inclusion setting and worked with many students with ASD in my classrooms. I decided to re-enroll in the licensure program for my master’s degree but continued to take SPED 760.
Dr. McKeithan encouraged me to continue pursuing my passion for supporting students with ASD in the inclusion classroom by enrolling in KU’s graduate autism certificate program. My knowledge of students with disabilities and students with ASD greatly increased upon completion of my two programs at KU.
Applying the Content and Courses to My Classrooms
I presently have a class of 21 fantastic first graders. Two of my 21 students are diagnosed with ASD: one male and one female. Key elements of my teaching that have helped me to be successful in supporting my students with ASD include the physical layout of my classroom, the language I use with my students, and the academic and behavioral supports put in place.
I have never been one who enjoys putting up lots of decorations or cluttering the walls. I have found that by reducing the number of things I have on my walls and only having furniture I feel is necessary to the daily functioning of my classroom, I am able to limit physical distractions. Too much “stuff” in a classroom was emphasized as distracting to students with ASD throughout my coursework. This has allowed me to create a calm and inviting learning environment for my students.
The greatest takeaway from my autism certificate program was the shift in the language I use with my students. I place a great focus on using positive and proactive language. For example, if a student is running in the hallway, my first inclination is to shout, “Stop running!” However, this student might not know what to do in place of running down the hallway. Instead, I use a calm, but firm voice to say, “Stop running, we walk in the hallway."
I have now given the student a direction that helps them to be successful at the task. This mindset and language shift is still a work in progress, but I have seen substantial changes in behavior by using the proactive language.
Mental ABCs & FBA (Functional Behavioral Assessment)
I often do something I call a “mental ABC” when attempting to modify an academic or behavioral skill for a student. I first consider what was the antecedent to the behavior; what happened directly before the behavior that caused the student to exhibit the behavior? I then analyze the behavior; what did the student do? Finally, I think about what consequence the student was provided; what did I do right after the behavior, and did it cause me to unintentionally reinforce a negative behavior?
Functional behavioral assessment (FBA) was at the forefront of my ASD coursework. While the process for carrying out an FBA is more formalized than my mental ABC process, it does follow a similar set of steps. The process has allowed me to determine the function of a student’s behavior and helps me to think of ways to reinforce expected behaviors and modify unexpected behaviors.
Each of the five courses within my graduate autism certificate focused on the academic and behavioral needs of students with ASD. I was able to modify my teaching strategies to meet the needs of all students within my classroom. Taking this coursework in conjunction with my master’s program led me to feel very well prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities in my general education classroom. Additionally, Dr. McKeithan helped to improve my writing and reflection skills which has allowed me to continue my education as a doctoral student. Dr. McKeithan is also helping to support my research during my program. While it was pure chance that I ended up in an ASD course while at KU, this is ultimately what led me to the path of further education, which I am currently pursuing.
Program Format and Faculty Support
When I began my graduate autism certification program, I did not know that I would end up in a doctoral program researching females with ASD. I encountered content related to differences between males and females with ASD during one of my courses. I began to see the differences reflected in my students and wondered what I could do as a teacher to promote an understanding of the differences between the sexes of individuals with ASD. That passion became evident in the coursework I submitted and Dr. McKeithan became aware of my interests. She encouraged me to continue researching this understudied area of educational research and continues to support me in my program.
The faculty of the ASD coursework are knowledgeable and passionate about their work. Dr. McKeithan and Dr. Griswold have personal connections and experiences working with individuals with ASD. They share their experiences but are open to hearing what strategies have worked for other students.
The discussion post assignments in my ASD coursework were one of the first times I met face-to-face (via Zoom) with my classmates. I was able to have ongoing discussions with my peers to learn about and support one another. This experience made the online coursework feel more connected and gave me a chance to speak on areas in which I needed support. These discussions often left me with new strategies to implement within my classroom.
The coursework was immediately applicable to what I was doing daily in my classroom. I never felt that any assignment was “busy work” because it all related to one or more of my students. I was able to use my own students for some assignments but the case study students in the courses allowed me to experience what it was like to work with students who are lower functioning on the autism spectrum. These students are not typically included in my inclusion classroom because of their substantial needs that are best met in a substantially separate classroom. The assignments were detailed and allowed me to take what I had learned in the course and apply it to my daily teaching.
Additional Autism Certification Program Benefits
I would encourage anyone who works with or loves an individual with ASD to enroll in this autism certification program. While some assignments were specific to working as a classroom teacher, many could be modified for those working as (or looking to become) an Applied Behavioral Analyst or a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst. Additionally, the content and strategies taught are beneficial for anyone that plays a role in the daily life of an individual with ASD. Most of the courses used the Autism Focused Intervention Resources and Modules (AFIRM) which are evidence-based practices to use with individuals with ASD.
Personally, I have been in meetings and situations where my knowledge has helped me to better meet the needs of my students. Additionally, I am viewed as someone with substantial knowledge about working with individuals with ASD within my school community. This has allowed me to become an advocate (especially for females with ASD) in my daily life.
I have had opportunities to lead schoolwide professional development courses and share my research at the 2021 North Carolina Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities (NCDADD) annual international conference. The graduate certificate in ASD did not just prepare me for success as a teacher but also as a researcher in the field of education.
The courses are very doable for full-time teachers. I completed two courses while also doing a full-time practicum for my master’s program. I worked as a teacher and part-time gymnastics coach throughout my time at KU.
My Advice for Prospective Students
Do not be hesitant to enroll in the courses because you are unfamiliar with technology or learning as an online student! The faculty does a phenomenal job in helping you to navigate the online learning world. Additionally, you will leave the course with an abundance of knowledge you can immediately apply in your professional (or personal) setting.
I encourage you to look more into how this program will benefit your future goals and to be open-minded to learning new and important content. I highly recommend the graduate certificate program in ASD at the University of Kansas!
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