Twenty years ago, the Autism Education Center at Grand Valley began with a goal of connecting statewide experts to share best practices and help improve ways to work in an educational setting with students who have autism.
"Across the state, what was missing was a way for people to communicate and connect so they can learn from each other and problem solve," said Amy Matthews, the center's founding director. "We knew there were some really amazing people across the state and we just needed to connect them."
Those initial connections have blossomed into a robust statewide network of experts shifting the landscape of how students with autism are educated, Matthews said. That influence has expanded to instilling the importance of allowing students with autism to fully participate in the school environment, from making a wider circle of friends to enjoying extracurricular activities.
Reflecting on those 20 years, Matthews said the statewide number of students with autism when the center started was about 3,000. Now, she said, that number is at least 30,000. When the center started, most people in schools hadn't worked with students who had autism — that field was considered a specialty area.