June 5, 2024

Communities of Leaders in Autism to Hold Annual Conference

Members of CoLA and VCU-RRTC ACE met last summer at their annual conference. This year's summer conference will be held June 20-21. (Photo Courtesy of Carla Goodman)

Each summer, an annual conference brings together educators from throughout Virginia to help them better serve students on the Autism spectrum. This year’s CoLA Summer Institute will be held June 20-21 at the Delta Hotels by Marriott Richmond Downtown. The theme will be Accept, Understand, Empower. 

Communities of Leaders In Autism (CoLA) promotes the use of evidence-based practices for students with Autism through professional development and collaboration opportunities for Autism leaders in educational settings across the Commonwealth. CoLA is provided through the combined efforts of Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center’s Autism Center for Education, Training and Technical Assistance Centers (TTAC), and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE).

At CoLA 2023, VDOE Early Childhood Special Education Coordinator Dr. Dawn Hendricks said, “Back when the VCU Center for Education was first being developed, and we were brainstorming ideas of things that would be helpful across the state to really enhance Autism practices, we came up with this idea of the CoLA.” She added, “[We] found this as a really powerful way to bring people together to provide some information from people that we might consider Autism experts, but then to also help them to problem-solve together, and to network, and to learn from one another.” 

“CoLA allows you to get together with people who are serving the same individuals in their schools and…might be having a concern or a challenge that you don’t know how to address,” said Jennifer McDonough, Principal Investigator for VCU-ACE, while speaking to CoLA last year. “Getting together through CoLA allows that exchange of information and ideas and really gives you an opportunity to not only grow yourself but grow other people.” 

Members of CoLA participated in regional workshops during the conference last year. This year's theme is Accept, Understand, Empower. (Photo Courtesy of Carla Goodman)

Erin McCormack, a Behavior Specialist with Fluvanna County Public Schools, said at CoLA 2023, “Even if you’re in a smaller county with small resources and…a lot of barriers, you can still do big things that make a big impact. I was really glad that not only can I hear about what other counties are doing, but I can share what we’re doing as well.” 

“This year, we have national expert Dr. Paula Kluth, speaking on specially designed instruction and the power of co-teaching relationships. The goal is to encourage educators to tailor teaching methods and materials to meet the unique needs of each individual student. Providing targeted support can help enhance their learning experience and overall success,” said Carla Goodman, a Training and Technical Associate with VCU-ACE. 

Goodman noted that this year’s CoLA agenda includes a Division Spotlight speech as well as an “Educators’ Recess” for participants to unwind with activities like walking, painting, and yoga. 

Blythe Johnson-Jones, VDOE Specialist in Autism, Intellectual Disabilities, and Assistive Technology, says that “VDOE’s role…is to provide support [and] to help steer the focus for CoLA.” A relative newcomer to VDOE, Johnson-Jones will be participating in CoLA for the first time this summer. “Being [an] agency representative, I’m excited to see what CoLA even looks like. One of the goals of being a…representative…is to create a partnership.” She concluded, “I hope everybody has a wonderful time gaining information that’s going to impact lives. …I hope that they walk away with things that support students with Autism. ” 

Johnson-Jones also says, “What CoLA stands for is a community of leaders in Autism…It is a community of leaders who are focused on a similar goal…positive outcomes for students. Just having that focused commitment on student success and student outcomes, especially for students with Autism, is really amazing.” 

For more information on CoLA, visit: vcuautismcenter.org/ta/cola