Converse Pioneers South Carolina’s First Autism Education Coursework

Staff Report From Spartanburg CEO

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

Thirty-five educators from Spartanburg school districts have completed South Carolina’s first specialized course sequence for Autism Spectrum Disorder at Converse College and were awarded certificates on Saturday, May 12 at the college. They keynote address was given by Leann Corbin of the South Carolina Autism Society, who specializes in ASD and special education law and is both a teacher and the mother of two children with ASD. Special guests from local and state education, autism and counseling organizations were in attendance, along with special services directors from all seven Spartanburg school districts.

Despite staggering statistics and heigtened public awareness about the rise of autism in America, few teacher education programs nationwide offer specialized instruction in ASD. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in April that one in 59 U.S. children now has autism – a 15% increase from two years ago and a 150% increase since 2000.

With its new certificate program, Converse became the only institution in South Carolina to offer coursework and professional development in the field of autism. The program consists of five courses: Foundations in ASD, Speech Language and Communication Development in ASD, Adaptations and Inclusion for Students with ASD, Methods of Instruction Specific to ASD, and Behavioral Management of Students with ASD. The program’s first participants serve in a variety of positions ranging from mainstream and special education classroom teachers to school counselors, speech therapists and a school nurse. All encounter and support students on the Autism Spectrum regularly, but none have benefited from in-depth training on how to best support this student population until now.

“Most people probably assume that educators, speech therapists and counselors working with children with autism have specialized training in that field, but in reality, coursework did not exist in our state until now. Our program is designed to cover the needs of students with autism by providing tools that help specialists unlock students’ full potential. Our goal is to help these students reach their dreams and become successful members of our society,” said Elena Ghionis, a Converse College alumna and Lead Autism Specialist for the McCarthy Teszler School in Spartanburg School District 7. Ghionis researched, designed and now teaches the program’s curriculum, which will be offered to a new cohort of incoming students beginning this fall. In 2015, she was recognized by the S.C. Autism Society as Autism Specialist of the Year.

South Carolina students with ASD can be taught by teachers qualified in any special education certification category, said Ghionis, since specialized ASD training has not existed in the state’s teacher education programs until now. Last year, 88% of school districts statewide reported needing more education for teachers who provide specialized instruction to students, according to the S.C. Office of Special Education Services. Nearly 7,500 students, or 7.4% of South Carolina’s student population, are eligible to receive specialized instruction with an Individualized Education Program. This number has nearly doubled since 2011.

Program participant Kylie McKinney, who is an Autism Specialist at McCarthy Teszler, says the autism course sequence provided in-depth learning experiences that equipped her to serve students with ASD much more effectively. “More and more educators–both general and special– are accepting the role of teaching a child who is on the autism spectrum. My role as an Autism Specialist for Spartanburg County public schools requires that I collaborate with many other educators, staff members, families, and most importantly, students.  I am able to directly support the student while also educating and teaching others who have a direct investment in that student’s life. Essentially, that means these courses have a positive impact that is tenfold,” she said. “The magnitude of this program could be a game changer in the lives of students with ASD, and it gives both educators and students in Spartanburg County a wonderful advantage to learning.”

Converse College offers the most comprehensive range of degree programs in special education within the state, and aims to broaden its ASD instruction to serve teachers across the state in the near future. “We look forward to expanding our ASD offerings as this program grows, which will provide an important benefit to our state, local school districts, teachers, and parents of children with special needs,” said Converse College President Krista Newkirk.