Autism Expert Katherine Holman on Developing a Leadership Mindset

Katherine C. HolmanSpecial education teachers have long been in demand. But even among those with specialized training, few focus exclusively on students who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Katherine C. Holman, Ph.D., co-author of School Success for Kids with Autism,” sees a growth in demand for teachers not just with ASD training, but who can engage their colleagues and empower student families as well with innovative thinking.

“There is a lot of promise because we know so much more about autism and which evidence-based strategies are truly effective in helping these individuals learn, and be more social and successful in personal and school settings,” says Holman, who is an assistant professor at Towson University in the Department of Special Education and the director of the Teacher as Leader in Autism Spectrum Disorder graduate program.

Autism diagnoses have increased

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides students with certain disabilities, including autism, access to free education to meet their needs. ASD diagnosis typically includes recognition of a cluster of symptoms.

IDEA defines autism as a “developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, about one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder.

That number is much higher than at any point in history; from 2008 to 2014, CDC data showed a 30 percent increase in autism diagnoses.

Wide autism spectrum affects learning

The wide diversity of intensity of behaviors and skills among students with ASD complicates instructional programming. For example, change of routine, activity or environment can present major difficulties for autistic students and consequently disrupt learning — for children with ASD as well as their peers.

For students who already experience social, emotional and communication challenges, their response to a relatively simple change, like moving to another room, may further isolate them from their classmates. Many autistic youth are intellectually gifted and require special instructional attention as well.

Depending on both the child’s capabilities, as well as a district’s capacity, autistic students may be mainstreamed into inclusive classrooms or be placed into specialized classrooms for students with special needs.

Teachers develop actionable steps with a leadership mindset

Holman sees it as vital for teachers who receive training about autism to spread it within their community, because so many educators haven’t had exposure to the latest evidence-based strategies, such as comprehensive behavioral training for young children and naturalistic teaching strategies, where students experience the direct and natural consequences of their actions.

“If they graduated five or 10 years ago, they probably didn’t have very much education in autism or in how we can better serve this population,” she says.

Integrating a leadership action plan into the learning stage itself should help teachers make more of a difference with their autistic students.

Whenever educators learn new information and approaches to working with students with autism, Holman advocates for asking questions about the steps they’ll take back at school, to keep things “constantly moving forward,” and to make the teachings more practical, and less theoretical. Teachers at a workshop or researching on their own might ask:

  • How am I going to be a leader in my classroom?
  • How am I going to share this within my school community, including other education professionals in the classroom, families, and the rest of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team?
  • What new formats can I explore, such as a professional development workshop or coaching a fellow teacher in my building?

Families as allies

Most families with a child with ASD have significant needs, and understanding how those needs impact the whole family system — including siblings, who are at higher risk of being diagnosed with ASD — presents numerous strains when it comes to establishing collaborative relationships.

Holman recommends that teachers focus on developing clearer communication skills and learn to listen closely to the stories that families share.

“The pathway taken to get to this class and this teacher could have been very challenging,” she says. Families may bring a lot of baggage to the new relationship. “Work hard to have open, transparent, frequent lines of communication.”

Principals and other administrators

“Everything starts from the top,” Holman says.

When administrators learn more about ASD, and encourage more leaders at the ground level — in the classrooms — it builds a stronger school community.

Top leaders respect the time and space requirements for further learning for teachers — and celebrate that, Holman says.

“Giving acknowledgment to their teachers [who] are going above and beyond to further their learning” reinforces the creation of a more engaged school community, she says.

The high number of students with autism means that all educators have to address their unique needs. In rising to the challenges, many will forge new skills and meaningful connections.

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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