Autism Education Center at 20: Connecting experts, connecting peers, using evidence to increase sense of belonging

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.

Amy Matthews
Amy Matthews said the work done through the center had had a positive impact on education. "I think this has been a successful project that people can look to and say, 'This is something Grand Valley has contributed to the community.'"
Image Credit: Amanda Pitts

The center has helped advance understanding of educating students with autism through a commitment to evidence-based practices coupled with a supportive environment that emphasizes lifelong learning, Matthews said. One motto she and her team go by in the rapidly changing field: You did what you did when you knew what you knew.

Matthews said she has used those words of reassurance in at training sessions, where educators will remark, "I've been doing it wrong all of these years." Families also often need to hear that, she said.

The catalyst for the center was a former West Michigan state senator whose grandchild had autism and who recognized the need for resources for families, Matthews said. Funding through a grant administered by the state followed as the center was established at Grand Valley; meanwhile, state officials saw the continual need for such a resource.

That START grant continues to be the main source of funding for the center, said Matthews, adding that educators in the field are a core element of the center's work.

Darnella Delfine
Darnella Delfine
Lindsey Harr-Smith
Lindsey Harr-Smith

Darnella Delfine is one such professional, having started work with the center around the time of its inception when she was a classroom teacher. Now a special education consultant with Wayne Regional Educational Services Agencies, Delfine said she has long valued the evidence-based resources delivered through the Autism Education Center.

An equally important element to her is the network the center's team has facilitated among statewide experts, Delfine said. For instance, these fellow professionals can give important insight on the nuances of implementing the educational and legal information in a way that still ensures a crucial sense of belonging for students.

"It's bringing together people who have all the same concerns and challenges and extra strengths. When I meet people outside of my district, they have different perspectives and different takes that can help you see things in a new way," Delfine said.

Lindsey Harr-Smith, program consultant for autism spectrum disorder for the Livingston Educational Service Agency and a specialist with the START Project, said one of the key aspects of the collaboration provided by the Autism Education Center is the peer-to-peer work. She said learning about this approach changed the way she conducted her classes.

Harr-Smith said she saw how providing a framework for students in general education to learn about autism and then connect with peers who have autism is "powerful, and it changes the school culture."

"When you demystify autism, when kids have that information, then they know what to do to help become that friend. It's now just about kids being kids," Harr-Smith said. "It promotes belonging and shared experiences. You have friendships that evolve beyond the school day and they go out and play laser tag, or go to the movies or go bowling."