An online window into autism

Posted: April 11, 2019
Mason faculty members Jodi Duke (from left), Grace Francis and Heidi Graff
Mason faculty members Jodi Duke (from left), Grace Francis and Heidi Graff, shown here in a video still, worked with Wiley Education Services to create content for students in the online track of the autism spectrum disorders (ASD) graduate certificate.

by Robin Rose Parker

“The best way to learn about autism spectrum disorder is to meet people who have it.” —Jodi Duke, George Mason University

Living up to this belief was an on-going challenge for the faculty in George Mason University’s Special Education program. Introducing students to individuals with autism was easily accomplished in the traditional classroom track of the Autism Spectrum Disorders graduate certificate. But how do you fulfill this principle in an online program? How do you help students meet someone with autism when they may be half a world away?

Autism Spectrum Disorder is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the United States, affecting more than 3.5 million Americans. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 59 children is on the autism spectrum, which is characterized by a set of social, communication and behavioral challenges that span a wide range in type and severity.

“Every person on the spectrum is so different,” said Mason’s Jodi Duke, associate professor in the Division of Special Education and disability Research and coordinator of the Autism Spectrum Disorders graduate certificate (ASD) in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). “We really believed we could not prepare people to work with individuals with autism without a lot of exposure.”

While embedding videos into coursework seemed like the best solution, finding the right videos proved difficult. Options were limited and available videos focused more on the characteristics of autism than the people. The desire to present authentic stories and behaviors turned the ASD faculty into iPhone videographers intent on capturing substantive content despite its less than perfect quality.

When Mason began its online partnership with Wiley Education Services in 2017, the ASD faculty saw an opportunity to address the “exposure” challenge. Wiley’s support services included media resources for programs that entered the partnership. As one of two tracks within CEHD’s MEd in Special Education going fully online with Wiley, the ASD certificate would have video production at its disposal.

“Wiley said to us, ‘If you could create anything, what would it be?’ said Duke. “Immediately, we all thought – we’ve got to have video. Real people.”

What they really wanted was more than just a video. They wanted a case study that would give students an insider’s look into the lives of people with autism. They imagined featuring individuals at different ages with different levels of support needs. They wanted not just a view from the classroom, but at home, in interviews, in the community, and at work.

This would be a new approach, even for the Wiley team. They would have to be willing to front load their media support which was a departure from their typical service model. After some initial questioning, Wiley agreed and immediately began working with the faculty to decide what should be filmed and where and how to integrate the footage into the courses. “That was a really complicated design process that I don’t think we could have done on our own,” said Duke.

Together they arrived on the concept – students would be introduced to four different individuals with autism on the first day of class. Their stories would be woven into all five of the certificate courses giving students the opportunity to witness the impact of autism on the individuals and their families as they moved through their days.

In the spring of 2018, the ASD students met Brooke, a non-verbal 9-year-old girl who communicates with sign language and assistive technology; William, an 8-year-old autistic boy and his dad, who is also on the spectrum; Jake, a teenager, who is helping the Montgomery County police better understand people with autism; and Alli, a Mason undergraduate, who is moving on campus and working as a teaching assistant.

“The students get to see the full picture of these folks,” said Duke. “They get to see their incredible strengths, but they also get to see the challenges and how each of us, when we were interviewing or interacting with them got to work with them.”

For the participating families it was all about helping others. Identified through networking and listservs, the families not only opened up their lives and their homes, but also provided a wealth of background documents. Faculty were given brain images, diagnoses, evaluations, and assessments – all given for student study with each document telling its own story. This unprecedented access allows students to assess the individuals and identify the appropriate tools to deal with the behaviors. “We are able to provide all these perspectives,” said Duke. “In a traditional face-to-face class I can send you out into a placement, but you still wouldn’t get that full picture.”

Students say that getting to know the individuals is their favorite part of the class, and Duke reports that the videos have helped the students produce deeper and richer analysis.

“The video series has afforded me such a rich opportunity for gaining a clear understanding into the lives of individuals with ASD and their families,” said Michelle Gutierrez, a graduate student in the Special Education program.

Gutierrez, the mother of two special needs children, said she plans to use the knowledge in a career as a special needs advocate. “Having the opportunity to see these families in their own environments was such an enormous privilege,” Gutierrez said. “I can only hope to honor that with a continued commitment to helping families thrive in our communities.”

The case study concept is also receiving attention outside of Mason. Duke and the Wiley video crew have been asked to present at the Online Learning Conference in Denver, Colorado this spring.

“The partnership has been tremendous,” said Duke. “This whole video process has been the highlight for us because it has really taken a program that we had sort of conceptualized before and elevated it to such a different level.”

Duke said that the faculty hope to work with the Wiley video crew again in the future.

“We’d love to go back in a couple of years and do a follow up, because the other part of the story is, this is a lifelong situation, and so the needs and challenges will change.”

Learn more about Mason’s Autism Case Study.

Comments or Questions?

A Closer Look

iPhone interviews focusing on Mason innovation

Student Stories

Learn about the students we serve

Initiative Spotlight

Get an update on the ADVANCE initiative