Licensed but Unprepared
The number of autistic students receiving special education services increased 478% between the years 2000 and 2013 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016). U.S. schools and teachers are educating more autistic students with complex educational needs resulting from differences in communication, social interaction and behavior. As a result, schools need increasing numbers of teachers who are equipped to educate them. Quality special education teacher preparation is critical for teachers of autistic students, because it can affect the quality of education and outcomes for this highly unique student population. Very little research has been conducted to determine the extent to which special education teacher preparation programs provide teachers with preparation to teach autistic students, or about the extent to which special educators feel prepared to teach this population at the point of conclusion of their preparation programs. This study used a mixed methods sequential explanatory design to examine the perceptions of special educators about their preparedness to teach autistic students based on preparation program/licensure, specialized autism coursework, and on-the-job experiences after licensure programs. A researcher-created survey was followed by interviews to explore participants’ survey responses more deeply. Survey data (n =121) were used to inform both question construction and participant selection for a purposive sample of follow-up interviews (n= 10). Regression analyses, means, summary scores, and thematic coding were employed to analyze the survey data. Results indicated that the majority (77%) of special education teachers felt unprepared to teach autistic students at the end of their licensure programs. However, specialized autism coursework was a significant predictor of teachers’ sense of preparedness. Limitations of the study and implications for special education teacher preparation and education are discussed.