Training public school teachers specifically to work with students who have autism makes a big difference, new research suggests, helping kids on the spectrum excel in mainstream classes.

A new study looking at elementary schools in districts across the country finds that providing teachers with just a little bit of extra knowledge about how to work with children with the developmental disorder can yield significant results.

In cases where teachers received specialized training, those on the spectrum “were initiating more, participating more, having back-and-forth conversations more and responding to their teachers and peers more frequently,” said Lindee Morgan of Emory University who led the study which was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

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Researchers involved 60 schools across 10 districts in California, Georgia and Florida. At half of the schools, a website was made available to teachers where they could engage in modules related to autism.

By contrast, teachers at the other schools participated in three days of specialized training through a program called Classroom Social, Communication, Emotional Regulation, and Transactional Support, or SCERTS, and had regular coaching and access to reference materials throughout the school year.

Videos were taken of the classrooms over time to show how interactions changed and the researchers found that active engagement and social interaction were significantly better in cases where teachers received specialized SCERTS training.

In addition, the study found children in classes with teachers trained using the SCERTS method performed better in adaptive communication, social skills and executive functioning.

“This study is one of only a few demonstrating the efficacy of a treatment for school-age children,” said Amy Wetherby, director of the Florida State University Autism Institute and a study author. “And the most impressive part is it was conducted in public school classrooms with a good mix of general and special education teachers.”

The findings are especially meaningful, researchers said, since general education teachers in most states are not required to learn about autism despite the large population of children on the spectrum in mainstream classrooms.

“There is a pressing need to change the landscape of education for school-age students with ASD,” the study authors concluded. “This work has the potential to contribute to this change by providing a feasible, comprehensive model of intervention that can be implemented in a variety of educational placements and settings.”

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