This paper describes a distance education program offered by the University of Wyoming to train and support teachers in the field who are working with children with autism. Because of problems posed by the rural nature of the state, distance education is the program delivery mode of choice. The development of video portfolios has proven to be an effective complement to distance education courses and invaluable for teaching and monitoring the acquisition of new skills. Video portfolios have been especially useful in teaching complex skills such as functional behavioral assessment and positive behavior support planning.
Few districts are immune from the difficulties created by the nation wide shortage of special education personnel. These shortages are due, in part, to the inability of teacher preparation programs to produce enough trained teachers to fill positions vacated by attrition (Billingsley, 1993; Ludlow & Brannan, 1999). In addition, the special education population currently being served in public schools, has increased disproportionately to the available special education personnel (U.S. Department of Education).
The recruitment and retention of special education teachers is particularly problematic in rural and frontier areas (Carr, 2000; Lemke, 1994; Ludlow & Brannan, 1999). Moreover, the availability of specialists trained in low incidence disabilities, particularly in the field of autism, is almost nonexistent (Cegelka & Alvarado 2000; Carr, 2000). The University of Wyoming has attempted to address their critical personnel shortages through the development of an innovative distance education program. This program, using a combination of distance delivery systems, specifically targeted existing teachers in remote areas working with children with autism.
Like many states, Wyoming has seen a significant increase in the identification of children with autism over the past several years. Between 1994 and 1999, the number of children identified with autism in Wyoming grew from 28 to 75 (Wyoming Department of Education, 1999). This increase created a need among special and general educators to seek appropriate training in order to meet the unique needs of this growing population. A 1997 needs survey indicated that 76% of teachers in Wyoming working with children having autism felt unprepared to do so (Zahn, 2000). Teachers also reported professional development activities that had been made available were limited to information gathered from out-of-state conferences, from parents of children with autism, and from parent advocates.
An obstacle for the state in meeting the unique training needs of professionals teaching children with autism is the frontier nature of the state. Wyoming has a landmass of nearly 100,000 square miles and a population density of five persons per square mile. With a population of what you might find in a large city (500,000) spread over such a large area of varied and rugged topography of mountains and plains, gathering groups of teachers together for training is problematic. A program including a strong distance education component was neede to provide on-going training and support to teachers in the field. ATTAIN: An Autism Training Initiative for Frontier Areas was funded to provide such a program for teachers. The uniqueness of ATTAIN as a distance education program lies in the effective use of video portfolios created by each teacher in the project to supplement traditional activities.
ATTAIN Training Program
In 1997, the Wyoming Institute for Disabilities (WIND) at the University of Wyoming was funded by the U. S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, to assist the state in building the needed capacity to provide services for children with autism. Through this statewide initiative the ATTAIN project was developed. The purpose of ATTAIN was to train special and general education teachers currently teaching children with autism in Wyoming schools. …