December 26, 2006 Feature

Closing the Gap in Treatment of Severe Disabilities and Autism

Innovative Program at WCU Offers Training

Since 2001, an innovative on-site and online program at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC, has offered intensive training for graduate students and speech-language pathologists across the country to prepare them to treat people with severe developmental disabilities, including autism. The Communication Disorders Program in Severe Disabilities (CDPSD) builds upon the 40-year history of unique learning opportunities for graduate students and practicing clinicians offered by WCU's Communication Sciences and Disorders Program, which offers graduate and undergraduate degree programs in a beautiful mountain setting.

Bill Ogletree, director of WCU's graduate program, said he became interested in developing a new training program after hearing from colleagues who were "baffled by service delivery for persons with severe disabilities and autism." This lack of provider confidence led him to conduct state and national surveys probing providers' knowledge and practices.

The knowledge gaps revealed by the surveys provided the impetus for the CDPSD, a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Research Personnel Preparation.

Education and Service

Ogletree is the principal investigator for the CDPSD project, which has supported training for 53 graduate students through the university's communication sciences and disorders program. The year-long training consists of six three-hour courses designed to enhance the typical graduate program. Students initially participate in two seminars: an introduction to the communication abilities and needs of persons with severe disabilities and autism, and opportunities to observe and participate in recommended clinical practices.

These seminars are followed by a four-course summer sequence in which students receive interdisciplinary training specific to educational methods, collaborative practices with families and professionals, physical management, and assistive technology. Project faculty for the summer sequence includes members of WCU's nationally recognized Special Education Program in Severe Disabilities.

Interested CDPSD graduates may receive North Carolina state certification in severe disabilities. Students also complete portfolios during their experiences to document participation and serve as resource guides for future clinical practices.

"Cyber" Faculty

According to Ogletree, an innovative aspect of the CDPSD has been the participation of three nationally recognized "cyber" faculty members—Lee McLean, Ellin Siegel, and Amy Wetherby. These scholars regularly join seminars using distance learning technology and meet with students at WCU during an annual spring conference.

"The cyber faculty make the CDPSD memorable for students," Ogletree said. "Learning from leaders in the field who are actively engaged in research is an opportunity that makes our student training a world-class experience."

The second CDPSD component is summer training opportunities for practicing professionals. At the initiation of the project, modest objectives were established for providing training to SLPs in western North Carolina. During year two, the project received training inquiries from throughout North Carolina and the Southeast. By year three, all summer courses were available online, and students enrolled from throughout the United States. After the 2006 summer sequence, 55 practicing SLPs representing 26 states had completed training.

"The national response exceeded all expectations," Ogletree said. "I think this speaks to the magnitude of the need for this training. It is great to know that our program has been a part of influencing positive communication-based practice trends for individuals with severe disabilities and autism." 

The CDPSD also provides all participants with access to the project's severe disabilities library, which houses more than 200 products specific to assessment and intervention for individuals with severe disabilities and autism. In support of project graduates' clinical practices, they may borrow all project materials.

CDPSD graduates are enthusiastic about the program. "As a result of training, I feel much more competent to handle this specialized population," said Grace Libardo Alvarez of Washington. Marleah Hermann-Umpleby of Pennsylvania agreed. "My only regret is that the program ended," she said. "I would love to start a listserv or Web site to connect past participants so we could continue to share ideas."

Although the CDPSD is in its final year of funding, the project will continue to provide support to project graduates and others serving persons with severe disabilities. The program's leaders at WCU are seeking additional funding to continue and expand the project's impact through a mentor training program for participants.

Ogletree sees a need for projects like CDPSD in the academic environment.

"Programs such as the CDPSD need to be supported as the scope of practice for speech-language pathologists expands," he said. "Individuals with severe disabilities and autism deserve the best we as a profession can offer."

For more information about the CDPSD or WCU's Communication Sciences and Disorders Program, contact Bill Ogletree at 828-227-3379 or by e-mail at You can also learn more about WCU's graduate program at  

Georgia Hambrecht, is professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. Her 24 years of university teaching include courses in language, phonology, research, and professional issues. Contact her by e-mail at

David Shapiro, is professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. In his third decade of providing clinical services for people who stutter and their families, he researches multinational approaches to stuttering intervention and is the author of Stuttering Intervention: A Collaborative Journey to Fluency Freedom. He can be reached at

cite as: Hambrecht, G.  & Shapiro, D. (2006, December 26). Closing the Gap in Treatment of Severe Disabilities and Autism : Innovative Program at WCU Offers Training. The ASHA Leader.


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