Kelly Whalon, associate professor in special education at Florida State University, first landed a job teaching children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) after college, and she hasn’t looked back since.
Whalon said it’s difficult to express her passion into words. She simply loves working with this “fun, smart” group of individuals and has been helping students do the same. Now, Whalon is looking forward to expanding her work at FSU with new educational opportunities starting next fall.
The FSU College of Education has created a variety of new programs designed to prepare students to work with children and adults with ASD. Students can participate in online and on campus master’s programs, as well as an online graduate certificate.
These new programs are the brainchild of FSU faculty, including Whalon herself. She said that they were all invested in developing the programs in a way that would address the full spectrum of autism. Students will learn how to help individuals with ASD develop the social, behavior and language skills they need to express themselves effectively.
“Ultimately, the goal is to help individuals with autism build independence, autonomy and greater participation in their community,” Whalon said. “I think all the courses in the certificate do that.”
Whalon said that autism is one of the disability categories that tends to impact a variety of developmental skills, so they require support from a number of different professionals.
Anyone from teachers, speech-language pathologists, vocational rehabilitation specialists, medical professionals, behavior therapists or even family members can benefit from the training these programs offer.
The online graduate certificate is suited for practicing professionals who work in schools and communities or students pursuing a graduate degree who will provide direct service to individuals with autism.
Licensed special education teachers in Florida can qualify for autism endorsement on their teaching certificate after completion, which boosts their marketability and job opportunities. Master's students will also be eligible for this endorsement, as the certificate is part of the program.
But in a field that’s constantly evolving, it can be tough to keep up.
“I think it’s an exciting time to be in this field,” Whalon said. “It’s challenging because we have to tell people that we don’t know all the answers, but we do know so much more than we ever have. The information we’re getting is exploding all the time.”
Because there’s always something new to learn about the disorder, prepping for classes is never dull. Whalon said that the content of her courses changes every time she teaches it.
“We will always have to stay on our toes and update the courses regularly, but it’s a good problem to have,” Whalon said. “It’s never boring to teach.”
Whalon said that ASD is one of the fastest growing disability categories, which requires professionals who are well equipped to help those with it.
Autism has only recently been considered a spectrum disorder. It was initially described as a kind of childhood schizophrenia resulting from cold parenting. The “refrigerator mother” concept was disproved in 1980, when the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) gave autism its own separate diagnosis.
Autism wouldn’t be understood as a spectrum condition until the late 80s. What it’s known as today, ASD, wasn’t published in the DSM until 2013, when all the subcategories were combined into one umbrella diagnosis. Since then, it’s been defined by two categories: impaired social communication and/or interaction and restricted and/or repetitive behaviors.
“The change we’re seeing in the numbers is a reflection of a better understanding of what autism is,” Whalon said. “That has definitely led to an increase in prevalence.”
Despite these developments, misconceptions linger. Whalon finds that the spectrum itself can be difficult for people to understand. Some with ASD may struggle with verbal speech while others have an “amazing vocabulary” or might even be gifted.
Whalon said that people also tend to believe that that those with autism aren’t social. These individuals can have difficulty communicating, but Whalon said that they still desire friendships — they just need more help in learning social skills.
As for what causes autism in the first place, it’s still unclear.
“There’s a lot of theories out there for why it exists, but what we do know is that we’re doing a lot better job at diagnosing it and understanding it,” Whalon said.
Whalon finds people often saying that if you know one person with autism, then you know one person with autism, because it manifests so differently in each person. But for Whalon, what remains the same is how rewarding it is to work with them and their families. She encounters thesame passion in her students, especially when they work with children and adults who have autism directly. She believes that these hands-on experiences makes the learning process more authentic.
Whalon remembers a student being so excited when a child who had very limited verbal speech put one or two words together. It was something that they had never done before.
“When they have these kinds of experiences, I think they’re touched,” Whalon said. “When you're teaching something that’s essential to a person's quality of life, that’s just a huge reward.”
In Whalon's eyes, success doesn't mean that everything will work. She thinks students who have the perseverance to find out what does will be most successful in these new programs. They have to believe each person on the spectrum is capable.
One young woman, Haley Moss, is living proof that they are. She was diagnosed with autism at age three and wasn’t expected to finish high school, earn her driver’s license or make friends. In January, she was admitted to the Florida Bar, becoming known as the first lawyer openly living with autism in the state.
“It’s a core belief and value that all individuals can learn and that something will work,” Whalon said.