Manoa educators offer innovative approach to special education

Barb Forsyth

MANOA—Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that protects persons with disabilities enforced by the Office for Civil Rights under the U.S. Department of Education. The law requires public schools to provide qualified students with disabilities an education comparable to the education provided to students without disabilities.

However, in Hawaii and throughout the United States, there is the lingering obstacle of getting adequate training for public school staff due to funding issues, logistical issues, or simply because of the complex nature of special education—there is no one size fits all curriculum.

In situations where a public school is not adequately trained to provide education to a student with disabilities, it may take a lengthy and costly lawsuit before the necessary training and people are brought to that school.

Autism Training Solutions (ATS), based in the Manoa Innovation Center, grew out of a way to serve the swelling population of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, which has resulted in increased demand for trained therapists, tutors, teachers, and paraprofessionals.

The folks behind ATS imagined a situation where schools could train their staff in the most cutting edge autism treatment options without them having to attend an expensive conference in a faraway destination. Better yet, they envisioned a solution to staff training that was more dynamic, enjoyable, and effective than traditional didactic instruction, yet accessible to anyone with a computer.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of disorders “characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior” (NIMH). Some examples of autistic child behavior include little or no eye contact, very late acquisition of speech (sometimes no speech at all), no interaction with peers, an extremely hard time transitioning, and self injurious actions. 

It is no surprise that, given the difficulties presented by their disability, these children encounter problems when navigating the traditional educational setting. As such, they require special support while in the classroom. If they do not have trained personnel working with them, regression and extremely problematic behaviors often result.

The good news is that children with autism can flourish and learn to interact with their typically developing peers if they are supported by professionals that are educated in the appropriate strategies to help them succeed. 

Meeting special needs

Children with autism can and will make progress if they are provided with interventions that are evidence and research based, and carried out by trained personnel. The problem is that most people in our schools are not equipped to deal with autistic children. High rates of turnover, a lack of qualified trainers, and the high cost of retaining trained personnel are common problems within our service provider agencies and schools.

The current trend in education is full inclusion—meaning the autistic child is in the classroom with all different types of children. The reality, then, is that all teachers, whether general education or special education, will encounter children with special needs. Yet there is currently a lack of practical application being taught in special education programs. 

According to ATS co-founder Emaley McCulloch, 80 percent of university programs do not offer the necessary training. In other words, students are learning the theories behind autism spectrum disorders but not the practical application.

“Some people have a misconception that public schools in Hawaii are terrible at special education,” McCulloch said. “A lot of schools are doing a really good job, but at other schools there’s just not enough resources.”

McCulloch explained that addressing the situation means educating parents as well as school administrators.

“There are so many treatments and parents just don’t know where to turn,” McCulloch said. “Parents don’t know what a good program looks like. If parents don’t know, then everyone thinks everything is fine and dandy.”

McCulloch (BA BCaBA ) and Amy Wiech (M. Ed BCBA ) founded ATS in September 2008 as way to train staff in evidence-based autism interventions that was affordable, efficient, customized, and flexible. They have experienced firsthand the significant need for high quality intensive training as well as the tremendous stress, both organizationally and financially, that parents, companies, and educational institutions face trying to keep their staff properly trained.

McCulloch and Wiech had been serving families on a case-by-case basis before they realized they could have a broader impact by developing interactive content that would reach a board audience. They also saw the potential for better training and treatment options that could reach an ever-widening audience. So with their combined 30 years of experience implementing, designing, and supervising evidence-based autism interventions programs to children with autism, ATS was born.

Children with autism can and will make progress if they are provided with interventions that are evidence and research based, and carried out by trained personnel.


A dynamic approach

The premise behind ATS is that a child’s success is dependent on the knowledge and skill of the adults in their life. Their mission statement is “to enlighten, excite, and educate others in autism training solutions.” 

By combining interactive videos with online staff assessments and supervision, ATS has created a dynamic approach for staff training that has redefined organizational training operations and created new success stories in the field.

The evidenced-based trainings are delivered through entertaining yet educational videos, which follow a step-by-step series. ATS combined the results of various studies on online learning for adults when developing their curriculum. They incorporated what has shown to be effective: video modeling, competency-based learning, and self-monitoring. 

The curriculum is largely documentary in style to harness the educational power of video. ATS built unique partnerships with service providers, public schools, and families to film children and adolescents across the autism spectrum receiving evidence-based interventions within their natural environments. Their instructional videos cover evidence-based topics surrounding Autism Spectrum Disorders, Behavior Management, Verbal Behavior, Discrete Trial Instruction and Professionalism, to name a few.

The ATS curriculum is based on a variety of methodologies within the Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program, which have been proven to help children affected by autism progress. 

Dr. Bobby Newman, board certified behavioral analyst (BCBA) states that “Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is not a ‘therapy for autism,’ it is a science with a data-based, decision-making framework that is self-correcting and supported by extensive research.”

The concepts used in ABA work with all children because it is a system based on positive reinforcement for behavioral interventions, according to ATS. It is based on data, so the solutions to behaviors are not just a guess based on one day’s events.

With online training, there is also the ability to deliver a consistent message in a way that can quickly be disseminated throughout a given organization, with real-time updates aligned with the most current research. In other words, students can assume control over the content, learning sequence, and pace of instruction, allowing them to tailor their experiences to meet personal learning styles and organizational objectives. 

Collaboration challenge

ATS can serve a range of clients from new professionals within the field to families looking for the latest research that would help their children. It can be an entire course, or it can provide continuing education units on a particular topic. It can also serve as a way to screen potential employees by assessing their skills and knowledge.

ATS is already in school districts in Virginia and Utah, has partnered with the National Autism Center, and has several nationally renowned experts on its board.

McCulloch and Wiech believe in collaborating with the Department of Education (DOE) in order to reach the widest number of children possible. In the last two years, they have enjoyed a successful partnership with Leeward school district but have yet to establish a significant presence island wide, despite the recognized shortage of trained professionals and the DOE’s efforts to decrease the number of due process suits against them. 

Due process suits result when parents feel they have no other way of guaranteeing trained help for their children. Unfortunately, they are costly and further burden Hawaii’s already broke public school system. 

Of course, in the long run, investment in something like ATS would cost a lot less than lawsuits or the social cost of having these children grow up without making progress, McCulloch said. It is also more cost-effective than one-on-one training. Moreover, it just makes sense to provide new educators and contracted professionals with as many strategies as possible to deal with the challenging situations they are going to face when working with children with special needs—especially given that full inclusion is the norm. 

There are simply not enough experts out there to provide schools and parents with the support that they need, and ATS provides the first step towards an efficient solution to that problem.

“It’s not an easy fix,” McCulloch said. “It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s effective.”

For more information about Autism Training Solutions, visit