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UHV associate professor preparing educators to teach autistic students

When teachers have students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, they are encouraged to include those students in regular classroom activities. In theory, it’s supposed to help the student, but in practice, there are obstacles.

Rita Coombs-Richardson

“I’ve been in the field, and it’s very, very difficult,” Rita Coombs-Richardson said

That’s where a program taught by Coombs-Richardson comes in. She is a University of Houston-Victoria associate professor of educational leadership, administration and supervision.

Coombs-Richardson worked with special education students in New Orleans and Houston. During that time, she saw many students with autism who were just passed over.

Coombs-Richardson and Fred Litton, dean of the UHV School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development, developed a grant to offer scholarships to teachers who want to teach students with autism.

In June, the UHV School of Education, Health Professions & Human Development learned it had won a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for its master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on autism. The funds will help the program’s participants to eventually work directly with children diagnosed with ASD.

The five-year grant will be used to pay the tuition for 40 graduate students as well as other program expenses. Students will finish the two-year online program with a state certification in special education with an emphasis in autism.

In the past, many students were misdiagnosed, Coombs-Richardson said. Autism was not a federal category. Autism was added as a category of disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Act in 1990. Students might have had autism but were not diagnosed correctly, so they didn’t receive the assistance they required. The opposite also could have occurred.

In order to best serve the students and avoid misdiagnosing, all educators should receive some training to help them understand autism, she said.

“A lot of times, general educators and school principals do not receive any training in special education,” Coombs-Richardson said. “The state of Texas doesn’t require it.”

However UHV includes a course in special education law for prospective principals. Coombs-Richardson supplies special education information in her courses with administrators.

The program in autism began accepting scholars this semester. One of the best things about the program is that working professionals can take courses while still keeping their full-time jobs, Coombs-Richardson said. The courses are offered online, making it easy to work toward the degree around a busy schedule. The degree can be completed in two years.

Coombs-Richardson said she became interested in autism because the number of students considered autistic has increased through the years.

“I’m interested in helping teachers help kids,” she said.

Faculty Feature is an online feature highlighting faculty members from each of the University of Houston-Victoria’s three schools. To nominate a faculty member, contact Jeremy Shapiro, UHV communications manager, or call 361-570-4296.

The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973, offers courses leading to 70 bachelor’s, master’s and specialist degree programs and concentrations in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.