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Different Roads to Learning

More children are being diagnosed with autism than ever before, and Associate Professor of Special Education Pamela Wolfberg (M.A., '88; Ph.D., '94) is working to see that they receive the specialized education they need.

Photo courtesy of Pamela WolfburgPamela Wolfburg says the same principles that apply to
good teaching in general also apply to teaching students
with autism. More information can be found in "Learners
on the Autism Spectrum: Preparing Highly Qualified
Educators" (The Autism Asperger Publishing Company,
'08), a book she co-edited with Kari Dunn Buron. Photo
courtesy of Pamela Wolfburg

Two years ago she established Project Mosaic at SF State, a graduate program focused on training teachers to serve students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Children with ASD, which range from classic autism to Asperger syndrome, struggle with communication and socialization and can miss out on interactions with peers that are a crucial part of childhood. Project Mosaic is helping teachers draw these students in from the periphery.

Launched with a U.S. Department of Education grant of $800,000, the program supports 20 students each year, who agree to work with autistic children for at least two years after they graduate. Special focus is placed on training teachers to work with students in ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse communities like those found in the Bay Area.

Rachel Dial (M.A., '07), one of the program's first graduates, drew from her training to design an autism program for Fremont Unified School District, where she was recently named Most Promising New Teacher of the Year. "Project Mosaic gave me the support network I needed to maintain motivation, to continue with the most rewarding yet challenging work as a teacher of children with ASD," she says. "I was able to share my concerns, ideas, experiences, and frustrations with my professors and cohort, which was exactly what I needed as a fairly new teacher."

Matt Poytner, an education specialist with a private practice in San Francisco, also found the coursework invaluable. He looks forward to graduating at the end of the semester better prepared to serve his autistic students and their families. "Through Project Mosaic I've been exposed to the work of experts across the country and around the world … this has enabled me to become an informed consumer of information about autistic spectrum disorders." Both he and Dial found a valuable resource in Wolfberg, whose expertise has been tapped by U.S. school districts as well as by educational leaders as far away as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

Learners on the Autism SpectrumWolfberg is best known for her Play Therapy Model developed in the 1980s, which brings autistic children together with typically developing children in guided activities that promote social inclusion, communication and play development. Integrated Play Groups can be found in Bay Area public schools, as well as in dozens of schools and community programs across the nation and abroad. "An adult can only go so far in teaching a child how to play," Wolfberg says. "The power of peer play is undeniable."

In January, thanks to a $445,000 grant from the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, Wolfberg will launch a three-year study aimed at providing additional empirical evidence measuring the effectiveness of the innovative autism treatment. A 24-week Integrated Play Group will be evaluated to study both how autistic children improve and how their typically developing peers grow in their acceptance toward their autistic playmates. "With 1 in 150 children being diagnosed with autism, the next generation needs to understand how to engage with individuals on the autism spectrum," Wolfberg says. "Fostering awareness in today's children means we'll see a new generation of adults who will know how to welcome and include people with autism in all aspects of life."


Project Mosaic students graduate with three qualifications: a master's degree in special education, level two of a special education teaching credential, and an autism spectrum graduate certificate. Professionals in such fields as nursing, psychology and social work who already have a master's degree in another subject have the option to pursue just the graduate certificate.

For more information: www.sfsu.edu/~autism


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