Teacher and student looking at a book

Photo: An adult reads a picture book to a child who is on the autism spectrum. Autism specialists and consultants work with staff to coach them on how to teach students on the spectrum.

By Kailey Fisicaro

What is an Autism Specialist and Why Are They Important?

What is an autism specialist and what do they do in our Central Oregon schools? Like so many titles in education, it’s a role with many hats.

Autism specialists with High Desert Education Service District support Central Oregon teachers and staff in working with students on the autism spectrum. They collaborate with staff to figure out how to best serve students on the spectrum, including by offering trainings, coaching and creating materials and visuals for students.

There are two levels to the role: autism consultants and autism specialists perform almost all the same duties, but specialists have completed an additional year of training.

Kitty Peterson joined High Desert Education Service District in 1999, working in early childhood education. About five years later, she became an autism specialist – the second person in the state to earn the title. In part because of her deep experience in early childhood services, a big part of her job is evaluating whether kids age 2-5 are on the spectrum. High Desert ESD provides autism specialists or consultants for most Central Oregon school districts, and autism evaluations for nearly all area districts except Bend-La Pine and Redmond, who perform their own.

From Arlington to Moro, and Crane Prairie to French Glen, it’s a big coverage area that leaves a big impact. A full-time specialist with High Desert ESD has a caseload serving about 70 students – HDESD employs nine part-time and full-time specialists.

“Ideally a lot of what we do is collaboration with staff,” Peterson said.

That includes coaching staff on using teaching techniques and strategies that work well for students on the spectrum. But while the majority of their time is spent working with staff, the ultimate effect is on students, Peterson said.

“We want to see them be as independent as possible, to be part of our communities,” Peterson said.

Wendy Beall, an autism and traumatic brain injury consultant, said one of the most challenging parts of her job is adapting to meet the needs of the teachers she supports, depending on factors like their training and experience with people on the spectrum. Autism consultants and specialists provide a great resource for teachers working with students on the spectrum.

“I feel most satisfied when school staff feel empowered by our time together – when they feel equipped to deal with challenging behavior,” Beall said. “I also love bringing innovative ideas and strategies to school teams.”

If there’s one thing Beall wished more people knew about students on the autism spectrum, it’s their potential.

“Just like everyone, they possess unique talents and gifts and also areas of challenge,” Beall said. “Many of these students will blow you away with their creative insight and memory of information.”