Feature Story

April 2, 2024

Self-Paced Online Autism Course Nears First Anniversary, Record Certifications

A course participant begins the new self-paced course. Participants can access the online course at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. (Photo by Lucian Friel)

RICHMOND, Va.-  As of April 2nd, World Autism Day 2024, VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center Autism Center for Education’s (RRTC-ACE) Autism Spectrum Disorder for Paraprofessionals self-paced online course is approaching both its first anniversary and the milestone of having provided this training to nearly 4,500 participants. 

             This figure represents a new record of course certifications in less than a year. RRTC-ACE has certified 18,746 people since 2012, when Virginia House Bill 325 (HB 325) was signed into law by then-Governor Bob McDonnell, requiring paraprofessionals to obtain training on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

Under HB 325, new paraprofessionals are required to complete Autism training within sixty days of their hiring. The new course’s self-paced online format enables participants to complete it on their schedule and at their own pace. 

Teresa Cogar, a training and technical assistance associate with RRTC-ACE and lead project manager for the course, said one of the numerous advantages of the new self-paced format is that it gives participants more flexibility in meeting the sixty-day requirement. 

“Divisions can now run as many participants [as] needed through the course and do not have to wait for facilitated course openings,” Cogar said. “This has assisted division leaders and participants [in meeting] the requirements of HB 325 in a timely and efficient manner [and also opened up] the opportunity for others who may want to take this course to assist students with ASD.” 

Cogar has received positive feedback from participants and school division leaders, who have expressed an appreciation that the course’s time frame has been reduced from four weeks to a far more manageable six hours. 

Among the division leaders statewide who have seen benefits from the new course is Nicole Coury, the Administrator of Professional and Organizational Development at Chesapeake Public Schools. 

           “This shift to a more manageable course framework has relieved the pressure and minimized disruptions for paraprofessionals, teachers, administrators, and students,” said Coury. “Reducing the need for substitutes to cover [for] paraprofessionals during their training has also resulted in cost-saving benefits and made it easier for administrators to utilize substitutes for other duties.” 

            She also noted, “We are most appreciative that our educators have unlimited, on-demand access to a robust curriculum that provides a framework for understanding the characteristics of [ASD], implementing effective instructional programming, and applying evidence-based best practices to support students in the classroom.” 

           Samantha Gregory, the coordinator of Specially Designed Behavior Intervention and Improvement within the Department of Special Populations of the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), says that “Paraeducators are essential to ensuring support for students and schools, but they can only do what they have been provided [the] training to provide. This training provides a consistent foundation for our paraeducators and equips them with a basic understanding of Autism and how to support our Autistic students so they are prepared to support our students in the educational environment, regardless of the backgrounds they bring to this work.” 

The course is divided into six modules covering general Autism competencies, comprehensive instructional programming, environmental structure and visual supports, communication and social skills, behavior, and promoting independence and self-determination. 

“What is great about this training is that it is developed specifically for paraeducators, but it is accessible to and provides information relevant to all educators from teachers to administrators,” Gregory added. 

             Nina Sawyer, a special education teacher assistant at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, says her favorite things about the course include “the breaking down of each point and [how] they really explained how to apply the information in the classroom settings.” 

            Breauna Roche, a special education teacher assistant at Chesapeake’s Carver Elementary School, completed the course in November 2023 and notes that she has since put its strategies into action in her classroom to help her students “understand the information given in their own ways.” Roche also praises the de-escalation strategies that she learned from the course, saying that they have helped her to maintain order in the classroom. 

        Darcy Fulcher, a fifth-grade gifted cluster teacher at Southeastern Elementary School in Chesapeake, says of the course, “It has helped me with tools for all children, not just those with ASD.” 

            RRTC-ACE, formerly the Autism Center for Excellence, is a state program funded by VDOE that provides technical assistance, professional development, and educational research to help people with ASD lead quality lives in their homes, schools, communities, and workplaces.

This free course is open to anyone who seeks to learn how to better work with students on the Autism spectrum. Those who wish to take the course can register online at https://vcuautismcenter.org/para/register, and it can be taken at any time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. 

More information about the training standards for paraprofessionals that are set by VDOE under HB 325 can be found at https://vcuautismcenter.org/documents/parapro_training_standards.pdf