of ASD in the last ten years can be partially explained by better identification and the evolving concept of autism (National Research Council, 2001). The DSM-IV (APA, 1994) broadened criteria to include five possible diagnoses under the Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDD) umbrella and included the term “qualitative” to define a range of impairments rather than the absolute presence or absence of a particular behavior. Increasingly the term “Autism Spectrum Disorders” (ASD) has gained widespread recognition with a growing consensus that the PDD umbrella actually represents an autistic spectrum (Filipek et al., 1999).
Increases in Florida: Florida educators are directly experiencing the consequences of dramatic increases in ASD diagnosis. The Florida Department of Education (2001) reported a rapidly increasing population of students identified with autism. The number of Florida students with autism more that doubled between 1997 and 2001, growing from 2704 to 5274 students. In addition it is noted that 76% of these students reside in ten Florida counties, four of which (Orange, Seminole, Brevard, and Volusia) are in the immediate service area of the University of Central Florida (Muldoon, 2003). It is also important to recognize that these are conservative figures since they fail to take into account students with other Autism Spectrum Disorders (e.g., Asperger’s Syndrome, PDD-NOS). It is predicted that sharp increases in referrals for special education services will continue to rise (Safron, 2001). Overburdened school districts face not only increases in the numbers of students requiring special education services, but also the need to provide a broadened range of available services for students with ASD.
Need For Special Education Coursework Specific to ASD: The wide spectrum of variability in autism poses a "complicated set of questions for diagnosticians and teachers" (Scott, Clark, & Brady, 2000, p. 35). "The countless permutations and combinations of social interactions, language, learning, sensory, and behavior deficits and excesses found in these individuals, in combination with their wide range of abilities, developmental levels, isolated skills, and unique personalities and abilities, make autism spectrum disorders an especially baffling disability" (Simpson, 2001). Information is desperately needed to assist all special educators in screening and planning effective interventions (Safron, 2001). According to the National Research Council (2001), “Personnel preparation remains one of the weakest elements of effective programming for children with autism spectrum disorders and their families” (p. 225). Current special education teacher preparation programs may provide strong instruction in some aspects of development and education relevant to ASD and little or no instruction in other aspects. This is the case in Florida where special education teachers earn certification under the broad umbrella of Exceptional Education through programs that generally focus on preparation to serve students with mental handicaps, emotional handicaps, and specific learning disabilities and provide extremely limited preparation to teach students with ASD. It is not surprising that a Florida task force found that “a number of students with autism are scattered throughout other ESE programs and in some cases are not being educated by individuals knowledgeable about the disability” (McIntire, Ness-Lee, Kaak, & Hoover, 2003) Without concerted efforts to enhance teacher preparation in the area of ASD, this situation is likely to continue.