SLPs face higher numbers of students with autism spectrum disorders on their caseloads than ever before, and we need to understand these students' underlying language-based disorder thoroughly. Do today's SLPs have this understanding?
Maybe, maybe not, suggest findings of a study conducted by Paul Cascella and Catherine Collela and published in 2004 in Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. The study of school-based SLPs in Connecticut found that although 77.8 percent confirmed treating students with ASDs, 68.2 percent reported having minimal to no training in properly addressing this population's needs.
Given these disproportionate figures in Connecticut, we—as clinicians and teachers in higher education in New York state who have worked together for more than 10 years—wanted to assess the uniformity of academic preparedness across our state's universities.
We wondered what any similar disproportionality would mean for newly graduated speech-language pathology students in New York. Given the clear potential for larger caseloads of people with ASDs, along with expectations among school teams that the SLPs are the communication experts, how are communication sciences and disorders graduate programs in New York preparing future SLPs to treat clients with ASDs?
In 2009, New York implemented a requirement that any educator working with people with ASDs take a three-hour course that provides an overview of the needs of people with ASDs. This requirement applies to the contingent of SLPs who are certified as teachers of students with speech and language disabilities. The state approves specific speakers and organizations to provide this training.
Although a step in the right direction, we wondered if this requirement is sufficient for newly graduated SLPs. Our belief was that New York graduate programs were not providing adequate training for future clinicians in the area of ASDs. We conducted a state survey to probe this issue further. We asked such questions as:
- Does your program offer a graduate-level course dedicated exclusively to autism?
- Are students required to take an elective course on autism from another department?
- Do you have students with autism spectrum disorders receiving speech and language intervention in your in-house clinic?
Of 23 universities, 12 responded, yielding a 52 percent response rate. Half reported dedicated coursework and, of these, one university offered a one-credit course, one offered a two-credit course and four offered three credits or more.
Of these six universities, one offered the course online, and the remaining five offered a classroom-based course. Only one university maintained a course dedicated exclusively to autism as a requirement for its graduate program in speech-language pathology. Universities not offering an ASD-specific course reported ASD content infused in other courses. Eleven of 12 universities also reported treating clients with ASDs in their campus clinics.
We were pleasantly surprised, however, to learn that 50 percent of the respondents are addressing the increase in incidence and prevalence of ASDs in coursework offered. However, this response still does not parallel the rise in ASD diagnoses. An increase in the number of New York programs addressing this issue could only improve the clinician level of preparedness beyond graduate school.
The nature of an SLP's work is constantly evolving. Our field is becoming more collaborative and consultative. As such, our profession must maintain the highest educational standards so we can acquire and share accurate, thorough and accessible information with administrators and educators who work with students with ASDs, as well as with parents. Although all CAA-accredited programs are expected to train both breadth and depth of clinical practice, given the increased incidence of ASDs, a continued increase in coursework offerings dedicated to this area would lead to positive outcomes in personnel preparedness.