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SRU offers new autism certificate

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Slippery Rock University graduate education majors, and those already working in education, can now expand their skills in working with those on the autism spectrum thorough a newly approved special endorsement certification program.

"We saw a huge need to educate teacher educators in the area of autism, and we saw the number of children being diagnosed with various forms of autism is increasing daily so we applied to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to begin offering an autism endorsement as part of the options for those master's degree students majoring in education at SRU," said Joseph Merhaut, associate professor of special education at SRU and department chair.

"The autism spectrum is large, ranging from mild to severe, and there are a number of our students, as well as those already teaching in the field, who are focused on this specialized area within special education," he said. "This program, initiated by Dean [Kathleen] Strickland [now retired], will be a great benefit to schools and facilities operating or establishing autistic support classrooms," he said.

Current students seeking the autism endorsement, which will be awarded as part of their diploma, will take four additional online courses, or 12 credits, focused on understanding autism. The courses include, "Introduction to Autism Spectrum Disorders," "Applied Behavior Analysis/ Single Subject Experimental Design," "Communication and Social Competency" and "Curriculum and Instruction for Autism Spectrum Disorders."

Merhaut said in addition to currently enrolled graduate education majors, the courses, which will be offered on rotating, year-round basis, are open to those in the field looking to sharpen their autism understanding or looking at new job opportunities in the autism area." The courses will be offered online which is expected to aid those working in the filed, but unable to commute to the SRU campus.

"We expect a number of teachers already working in the field, those with special interest in autism, or those with master's degree in special education, to enroll," he said. Once the coursework is completed, the student can apply to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to have the endorsement added to their certification.

"Currently, there is no actual teaching certificate in autism. I expect that will take a few more years, but until then, this program is a great step forward and will provide educators with the basic building blocks," Merhaut said. "There are certificates that focus on working with children with autism that make use of applied behavior analysis and then use that research to work with behavior modification."

SRU modeled its course certification on those already being used at other universities, Merhaut said.

"There are lots of children with autism we have not reached. This program will help solve that problem. We know some children with autism have what we call 'splinter skills,' such as being creative artistically, musically or mathematically. We need to know more about them, how they learn and how we can help them further develop their unique skills," Merhaut said.

"The certification our students receive will say they have completed the coursework and have a solid understanding of autism and how to work with those with autism," he said.

"We think employers will be impressed and the certification will give our students interested in working with those in the autism population a leg up in gaining employment," Merhaut said.