With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Colleen K. Reutebuch is the director of the Reading Institute in the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also an external evaluator for the National Center for Systemic Improvement. Her current work focuses on improving academics through interventions and professional development aimed at English learners and adolescents on the autism spectrum. Her research interests include academic and reading interventions, reading difficulties and disabilities and effective instructional practices to support all learners.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: How is your research looking at autism in high school settings?
Colleen K. Reutebuch: My work is sort of a piece of a bigger puzzle that we are trying to figure out. It is part of the Center for Secondary Education for Students with Autism.
The primary investigators are at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. What the leads on that did was to bring a group of researchers together to focus across core areas for individuals with autism that are considered deficits. What is sort of new and innovative about this research is that it is at the high school level, which has sort of been overlooked. Students with autism in high school are often under taught because of these deficits that are very broad in core areas of social interactions, communication and behavior. This research group looked at putting together a comprehensive treatment package that would better target the various areas instead of one or two areas.
My work in that focuses on academics, specifically for students with lower support needs, what we used to call high functioning. We don’t use terms like that or "severity" anymore. The students I was looking at were receiving most of their education in general education settings, general courses, and were expected to take and be successful on standardized tests.
Students on the autism spectrum may have a variety of issues, and one that is not a core deficit but is often impacted is in the area of academics and, specifically, comprehension. Academics and reading in particular are not targeted because educators are focusing more on other core areas, like behavior, social interaction and communication.
Trib+Edu: Where does your research fit within that larger picture?
Reutebuch: The team at the University of Texas was asked to take on these students with low support needs and to take what has been deemed an evidenced based practice. We did this along with students with learning disabilities, English language learners, students with reading difficulty and even typically developing student and use collaborative strategic reading, which is a developed reading intervention program targeting comprehension.
So we take that intervention because it has been deemed as evidence based, and look at the characteristics of individuals with autism in high school. Not a lot of reading is focused on high school. It is more about content area specifics. We took collaborative strategic reading and adapted it for a high school setting and for individuals with autism. So we added things like self-monitoring, prompting, task analysis, things that have been deemed appropriate for many learners with autism, taking this developed comprehensive package and sort of made it applicable to students with and without autism who may be working together in the same classroom.
Trib+Edu: Why is intervention limited in high school?
Reutebuch: There is sort of a pervasive view that teaching reading changes. In elementary and middle school, it is more acceptable to target learning to read. But by high school, the expectation is that students do read, even though that is not always the case, or just don’t read as well as they need to to be successful. That is particularly true for individuals who are in high school and have autism, because of the focus on the other core deficit areas.
Academics, which is greatly impacted by the ability to comprehend, is often overlooked or not as big of an area of focus, as the other areas. This research sort of looks at packaging things together so that one area, like academics, isn’t more important than other areas, like transition or family issues, independence and behavior, or social competence. This is the idea that these strong deficient areas for autism, by providing a package that targets all those various areas, we are more likely to make bigger gains, which are greatly needed in high school. High school is often an individual's last chance to receive any kind of formalized instruction or education.
Trib+Edu: So in your research, are you first evaluating the environment students with autism encounter, and then building a teaching program to improve it?
Reutebuch: Right. What we did was across all the various institutes that are involved in this center is conduct focus groups, with stakeholders like parents, educators, administrators, community members, students with and without autism, to get their perspective on what was going on in high school. We look at what was working and what areas could use improvement.
Based on that, we had these ideas on these interventions. Once we received this information from the stakeholders, we took that back to the drawing board to plan out how we were going to adapt or develop our interventions. We worked out what needed to be worked out and fine-tuned them. In the last three years of the grant — this is the third of five years — the individual interventions are being packaged with all the other interventions and implemented school-wide across 10 schools in three states. The idea is to do that in the next year and the following year.
Trib+Edu: How are these students expected to improve, by college readiness or grade improvement?
Reutebuch: It is sort of all of the above. Students on the spectrum are so varied. Some will go on to college and jobs, so to help them do better and have better skills and have more enjoyment in life.
One of the things that really propelled this research and got it funded were the outcomes of students with autism when they graduate. They are pretty dismal, as far as employment goes, success with post-secondary education and even with developing and maintaining friendships. That is why this is a comprehensive package, to really broaden things. It is not just to help students graduate.
Trib+Edu: Do you think the needs of autistic students is an issue getting attention, through programs and funding needed in the state?
Reutebuch: It is starting to. Autism spectrum disorders, because the prevalence is so great now, it is getting a lot of attention. When I went through my teacher preparation program, the statistic was one in 1,000 individuals would be diagnosed with autism. Now, the CDC is saying it is one in 83 students, and even that they think is low.
Funds have been set aside for early intervention and prevention. Those are important because we deal with individuals across different disability categories. Early intervention is important for making the biggest gains, getting students early.
The exciting thing about funds now being aimed at older students with autism is that it is not too late. There is still a lot that can be done and needs to be done.