Programs focused on teaching of students with autism among new Online Worldwide offerings

Editor’s note: This is the first in a new monthly series featuring online programs at the University of Nebraska.

New online programs from the University of Nebraska will help teachers address the growing challenges of teaching students with autism spectrum disorders and severe disabilities. The programs will position educators to better serve children with special needs in Nebraska and beyond.

NU offers both a graduate certificate and a master’s degree program in this area. The graduate certificate, which requires 12 credit hours, may be earned fully online – one of more than 100 undergraduate and graduate programs now available through the University of Nebraska Online Worldwide website.

The diagnosis of children with autism spectrum disorders has grown dramatically in recent years, said Ellin Siegel, associate professor in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Siegel, who coordinates the online programs, said new numbers from the Centers for Disease Control show that an estimated 1 in 88 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder – a 23 percent increase since the last CDC report in 2008.

This has resulted in critical shortages of educators who have the necessary specialized training to work with children with special needs, particularly those with autism, Siegel said. Specially trained teachers are in high demand at early intervention programs, K-12 school programs, and private and non-profit therapeutic agencies and organizations across Nebraska and elsewhere.

“Today, a special education teacher needs to be able to teach every special-needs child who walks through his or her classroom doors. That’s the reality,” Siegel said. “But we don’t have enough teachers specialized to work with children with complex educational needs. This is an untapped market – and the University of Nebraska is working to address the need.”

NU is the only higher education institution in the state to offer coursework focusing on teaching students with severe disabilities, Siegel added.

The programs are especially geared toward professionals who already are trained in a related field, including:

  • Preschool, elementary or secondary-level teachers.
  • Special education teachers.
  • Speech-language pathologists.
  • Occupational therapists.
  • Physical therapists.
  • School psychologists.

Specialization in teaching students with autism spectrum disorders and severe disabilities would allow educators to serve children and parents more effectively, feel more prepared to manage the diverse challenges of their jobs, and train others to do the same. Educators with this specialization also have an opportunity to advance in their careers and increase their earning potential.

The programs are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission – as are all University of Nebraska online programs – as well as the Nebraska Department of Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

Online Worldwide is an initiative of the four campuses of the University of Nebraska, bringing together all degree and certificate programs offered via distance education , including programs in agriculture, education, engineering, business, health professions and more. NU delivered nearly 109,000 credit hours online in 2010-11 – a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Almost 18,000 NU students, or about one-third of the total student body, took at least one course online last year, putting the university in line with national trends.

“Through online technologies, students have access to high-quality programs regardless of their physical location and with the flexibility to accommodate their other obligations,” said Mary Niemiec, associate vice president and director of Online Worldwide. “The university is committed to providing that access and filling an educational need for our state and nationwide. The autism spectrum disorder graduate certificate is an excellent demonstration of this commitment.”

Contact: Melissa Lee
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