Autism is the fastest growing disability in the United States, and public school systems are trying to catch up. One out of every 166 children is diagnosed with autism, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined.
The Autism Support Services: Education, Research, and Training (ASSERT) program at Utah State University is a state-of-the-art preschool program that uses research-based techniques to address the individual needs of autistic children. USU's pioneer site has opened the doors to a new world for children with autism and is a model training classroom for professionals in the Intermountain region.
Early intervention is key to helping children with autism, and the ASSERT program at Utah State serves as the training grounds for the educators who will make a difference in classrooms. The program offers children a chance to receive help at a young age.
Thomas Higbee, director of USU's Autism Support Services, spent more than 10 years researching and developing cutting-edge ideas that sparked the birth of the ASSERT program. Research has shown that children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) do not learn readily in typical environments, so Higbee fashioned an atmosphere ideally constructed for ASD treatment.
ASSERT provides consultation services and curriculum to school districts. Higbee and his graduate students frequently visit sites in school districts to provide in-depth training and ensure that students are getting the best instruction possible.
"The hard work has really paid off and we have seen dramatic positive changes in our students," said Higbee.
This individualized educational program has been improving the lives of children with ASD since 2003. What started as a 10-week summer course has become a highly-successful year-round preschool program that continues to revolutionize the way children with autism are educated.
This innovative program serves children three to five years in age. Each child has a personal instructor to work with for 20 hours a week and is given an individualized plan tailored to their needs.
"Intensive behavioral intervention for young children with autism is important because the earlier you work with the children, the bigger positive impact you can have on their progression," Higbee said.
The preschool program also teaches social skills and encourages leisure and play activities with structured peer-play interactions. Functional behavioral assessment and intervention techniques are used to address challenging behaviors.
"Learning doesn't stop at the classroom threshold," Higbee said.
Family training and participation is critical to the success of the program. Families receive periodical professional training and home visits by a team leader twice per month to learn how to continue the program at home.
Fawn Rigby's four-year-old son Zac is a student in the ASSERT program. This education has affected young Zac's life dramatically, and his mother is enthusiastic about ASSERT.
"It's amazing," Rigby said. "ASSERT has given Zac the personal attention he needed. After just a few months, the progress I've seen in him is remarkable."
Higbee has been very satisfied with the outcome of the program and the positive change in the students.
"The life-changing improvements we have expected from our students are happening," Higbee said.
The impact on the students and significant changes can be credited to the intense training and professional caliber of the instructors. Graduate and undergraduate students at USU can apply to work in the program and earn either university credit or compensation while learning how to effectively teach students with ASD.
Higbee said the ASSERT success comes from the rigorous training and satellite program. USU's ASSERT classroom serves as a training site for current and future special education teachers and professionals in related areas such as psychology and speech pathology.
"A big part of our students' success is due to our collaboration with ASSERT," said an aid at a local preschool. "The staff training and continual on-site visits have been vital in keeping our staff qualified to serve our students."
Through ASSERT training, professionals are able to learn behavioral intervention techniques and demonstrate knowledge of behavior principles and how to apply them.
"I have seen a tremendous amount of growth in each child, and I attribute it to the intensive individual programs that are implemented daily," a teacher at a local school said.