September 20, 2006

Teachers learn new techniques from autism center

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- How did the teacher spend her summer vacation?

Zeppelyn Venable, who's in charge of the Tri-County Special Education communication development classroom in Murphysboro, went back to school — but not just any school.

Venable and Sarah Dempsey, who teaches special education classes in Metropolis, volunteered to spend four weeks at Southern Illinois University Carbondale in a pilot program aimed at helping teachers work with those of their students who have autism.

Media Advisory

Reporters interested in covering the follow-up sessions when SIUC staff return to the classrooms to see how the teachers are applying their new knowledge and skills should contact Rebecca "Becky" J. Trammel, clinic director at SIUC's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, by e-mail at


"Children with autism don't learn from the environment in a natural way," said Rebecca "Becky" J. Trammel, clinic director at SIUC's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. The center is part of the College of Education and Human Service's Rehabilitation Institute.

"They have special needs that require special teaching techniques — they have to learn how to learn. This may involve more than typical teaching skills. There are specialized skills needed to teach children with autism effectively, and that's what we're working to develop."

Both Venable and Dempsey taught children with autism for the first time last school year. Autism, a condition in which symptoms and severity vary widely from person to person, generally impairs communication skills, makes it hard for those with the disorder to get along with others and limits interest in the wider world.

Children often do things in class that disturb their classmates, which interferes with the teacher's ability to teach. Venable, for example had eight boys with behavior that ranged from nail biting to flailing around on the floor to refusing all food.

The autism center's staff – professionals who focus on why behavior occurs in order to figure out how to change it – regularly go into classrooms to work with teachers whose schools request their services.

"We previously spent a lot of time in the classroom with these two teachers, but we didn't feel we were making the impact we should," Trammel said.

"It was difficult for the teachers to pay attention to everything going on in the classroom while learning basic behavioral concepts. To me, what seemed to be missing was formal teaching."

To solve that problem, Trammel and Jennifer "Jenny" C. Martin, the center's school coordinator, came up with the summer school idea, designing an intensive training program aimed at teaching basic behavior analytic and therapy skills. The teachers would learn how to modify their classrooms and their methods to help the children learn, both by watching certified behavior analysts and then by trying the techniques themselves with coaching from the pros.

"Not only did we discuss things like reinforcement, but we would go in and we would do it with them (the SIUC staff) back behind us telling us what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong," Dempsey said.

Venable appreciated the fact that having previously spent time with them in their classes, the organizers structured "summer school" in a true-to-life way.

"They understood that we don't have much one-on-one — it's maybe one adult to two or three kids," she said.

"They did a great job of helping us manage our classrooms efficiently."

Some days, the training focused on learning how to use reinforcement to encourage appropriate behavior, while other days it concentrated on concepts.

With Venable's nail biter, for instance, she and her coaches first tracked when nail biting occurred, next looked at what else was happening at the same time and then figured out that being close to the other kids seemed to trigger that behavior. Only then did they settle on how to deal with it.

"First we'd praise him when he's not biting his nails —getting really excited about it," she explained.

"We'd praise him for doing other things with his hands. It didn't seem to have a huge impact at first, but it made me re-evaluate my own program. Are we reinforcing enough? Maybe it should be every five seconds, with us gradually increasing the times between."

Dempsey also took a second look at her previous reinforcement technique.

"I learned that when a child does something independently, you reinforce it right then and there — you don't wait," she said.

Martin, the center's school coordinator, said she and Trammel had included teacher testing in their program design to help them assess whether the training actually boosted the teachers' expertise.

"There definitely was measurable improvement," she said.

"This is the first time we have done this program, so I don't have a lot to compare it with, but I was super excited to see the increases we saw — it was very successful."

The real proof comes this fall, when the SIUC staff returns to the schoolroom and watches what happens there.

"I don't care so much about them doing well on our test — I want to see the teachers apply that knowledge," Trammel said.

"If this doesn't translate into best practice in the classroom, we haven't done anything."

The teachers themselves are optimistic.

"I think this will really help the organization aspect of my classroom," Venable said.

"They (the SIUC staff) have given me sheets with protocols I can use for things like preference records for use in reinforcement."

Said Dempsey, "The summer program has given me a better way to approach the school year from the beginning to the finish and to make it feasible for the kids. Now I am ready for the school year. I am not hesitating. I am going into it knowing I can handle it."

For more information on the assistance available to teachers, call SIUC's Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders or e-mail Trammel at or Martin at

Serving others is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.


Teachers learn new techniques from autism center

New wave — Murphysboro teacher
Zeppelyn Venable (left) and
her student Luke J. Lamb, 5,
along with Metropolis teacher
Sarah Dempsey and her student
Alan C. “A.C.” Heine, 3, get
ready to make an ocean in a
bottle, as Southern Illinois
University Carbondale
graduate student Kari A.
Musser (background), a Beecher
City native, observes. The
two teachers took part in a
pilot project, designed by
staff at SIUC’s Center for
Autism Spectrum Disorders,
aimed at teaching them the
skills they need to help
students with autism. In the
bottle activity, the children
practiced listening, paying
attention, following
instructions and talking about
what was occurring. Download
Photo Here