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5642 Assessment of Students On the Spectrum In a Large District: A Journey [ASHA Session]

Friday, July 8, 2011: 11:00 AM-12:15 PM
Miami 1 (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)

The presenters will describe the journey of developing and implementing a protocol for the consistent district-wide comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation of students who are suspected of being on the autism spectrum in a large Florida school district. As the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) has increased (Charman, 2002; Fombonne, 2003b), the need to comprehensively and thoroughly evaluate those students and the utilization of that evaluative data to drive intervention/instruction has evolved over time.  This session will outline the six year journey that school psychologists in a large Florida district took systematically.  The objective of the session is to outline the process of completing a needs assessment, implementing school psychologists’ training, acquiring appropriate assessment tools and determining the standard for a comprehensive psychoeducational evaluation. This assisted in effectively determining eligibility for special education services in school as well as providing recommendations for Individual Education Plan (IEP) development.

Duval County is the sixth largest public school district in the Florida (Supovitz & Taylor, 2003) and the twenty-first largest school district in the United States according to Proximity  One, 2010. It operates 172 schools and serves approximately 123,000 students. The county covers approximately 841-square miles and is populated by nearly 800,000 residents.  The district employs 8441 full time teachers and 56 School Psychologists, 5 of which are assigned specifically to the Child Find and Early Steps Departments.

There are approximately 900 students receiving special education services under the category “autism spectrum disorder” in Duval County.  A continuum of services is offered in the district, ranging from self-contained Communication/Social Skills (CSS) classrooms to full inclusion. Two coordinators oversee the program at the district level. The district has formed 23 “site schools” which have 4-5 CSS classrooms each and a site coach. Three “center schools” each have one classroom which provides intensive services to students with the greatest needs. In addition, many students whose pattern of behaviors is not severe enough to warrant a self-contained placement, but who would still benefit from the services of professionals knowledgeable about autism spectrum disorders are often placed in inclusion classrooms at the site schools. This satisfies the need for placement in the least restrictive environment, while providing access to specially trained staff on an as-needed basis. Still other students are served in inclusion classrooms in their neighborhood school. Information gained during the evaluative process is critical in making these types of placement decisions. 

The autism committee was formed several years ago to address concerns specifically related to the evaluation of students suspected of being on the autism spectrum. The committee tackled issues related to the professional development of school psychology staff, district guidelines for a comprehensive autism evaluation and dissemination of new information to school psychologists. A pivotal point in the life of the committee occurred in 2006, with the decision to include the use of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule in comprehensive autism evaluations. This decision would require the committee to develop a long-range plan for strategically training staff throughout the district over time, as outlined below.

Prior to 2005, the assessment of students on the autism spectrum was limited to the results of single trait checklists such as the Gilliam Autism Rating Scale (GARS) or Asperger Syndrome Diagnostic Scale (ASDS) and the administration of the Autism Screening Instrument for Educational Planning (ASIEP). In 2005, the district hired two psychologists who were trained in the administration of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), often considered the ‘gold standard’ for assessing students who are suspected of being on the spectrum.  In 2006, five additional school psychologists were trained to use the ADOS.  An intentional effort was made to train individuals from all five geographical regions of the county in order to maintain accessibility. The committee developed new Autism Evaluation Guidelines and procedures for the assessment of students who may be on the spectrum.  This included the development of RED Flags questionnaires to be used by school psychologists during Child Study Team meetings and the ASD Screen Checklist form for use when autism is suspected. 

Over time, the Autism Evaluation Guidelines were revised to reflect increased flexibility such as when students have a written medical diagnosis of autism, a change of placement is being considered or a triennial review is scheduled to occur for a student already identified as a student with a disability. As new instruments became available, their use was piloted to determine effectiveness and they were then added to the assessment battery. School psychologists in Duval County utilize a peer review process, ensuring that every report generated by a school psychologist is reviewed for technical accuracy, procedural compliance, and general (grammatical) proofing. For those evaluations in which autism is the focus, an additional level of review by appointed compliance reviewers (autism committee team members) is mandatory, regardless of whether the student is determined to meet the eligibility criteria for an autism spectrum disorder.

Two other training sessions were implemented for a limited number of district school psychologists and speech and language pathologists.  Training materials were purchased with funds from the ESE department and staff familiar with the ADOS trained additional staff members in its use.  The ADOS trained school psychologists updated their skills regularly by reviewing videotaped ADOS sessions, coding them and discussing the results.  In 2010, the district was able to pay for five more school psychologists to attend training in Atlanta in the administration of the ADOS.  They then had multiple opportunities to observe the administration of the ADOS in the schools prior to being scheduled to administer the ADOS on their own.  More recently, the four school psychologists originally trained only with the use of the DVD’s and in-house expert were sent to the CARD conference to take advantage of the formal training setting and experts in the field of ADOS administration.

Initially, the chair of the autism committee developed a hard copy schedule for availability of ADOS administrators.  In 2009, an on-line district-wide calendar was established in order to streamline the process of scheduling an ADOS administration.  The website,, a free online calendar, was put into place.  Each ADOS trained school psychologist provided 2-4 days per month of their availability to administer the ADOS as part of a team. This made it easier for other school psychologists to view the schedule and personally contact a trained ADOS administrator on the days for which the referring school psychologist was available.

In April 2006, one ADOS kit was purchased by the district for use by the two ADOS- trained school psychologists in the district. In August 2006, the materials for two additional kits were purchased.  By November 2007, two more ADOS kits were purchased by the district along with the training DVD’s.  This was in response to increasing demands for ASD evaluations within the district and an increase in trained personnel to assist with these evaluations.

More recently, an additional instrument, the Autism Spectrum Rating Scales (ASRS) was obtained and its use piloted to determine the usability and effectiveness of the scale.  Its use has again enhanced the information about students to be even more effective in determining the presence of autism and additional descriptions related to the student’s present levels of performance for the IEP.

The members of the autism committee have attended training provided in conjunction with the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) center in Jacksonville and through The Partnership for Effective Programs for Students with Autism (PEPSA).  Individual school psychologists have also sought out and attended trainings provided at the annual National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and Florida Association of School Psychologists (FASP) conferences. Many have attended various other area workshops at their own expense in order to stay abreast of current trends in the field.  The supplemental training has assisted the school psychologists in making recommendations for effective programming and IEP development, as well as in continuing to refine the assessment and diagnostic skills required to determine the presence of behaviors on the autism spectrum.

As our committee members continued to hone our skills, we were better equipped to correctly identify those clusters of behaviors that were considered on the autism spectrum. Prior to this, it was suspected that children on the spectrum were being served as students with an emotional or behavioral disability or as a student with a learning disability.  This was the impetus for the school psychologists to establish the comprehensive and thorough evaluation procedures. Our vision for the future is to stay abreast of the most current and effective evaluation techniques and instructional programming.  Our reports provide the most detailed information about the child’s behavior and functioning in a variety of settings and will result in the most appropriate placement decisions in the least restrictive environment and with goal in mind for productive citizens in work and play.

Lao-tzu, a Chinese philosopher once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  The past six years have seen just that….a single step has evolved into a much more effective and appropriate evaluations for students suspected as being on the autism spectrum.  In Duval County, we believe that the comprehensive nature of our evaluations set us apart from other providers. We would like to continue to provide evaluative information that drives appropriate instructional programming for our ASD students, ultimately fostering independence and productivity.  Our overriding goal is to ensure that students on the spectrum are accurately assessed for eligibility for special education. With a clear picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses, we can determine what needs require attention as well as areas of strength that can be enhanced.

Learning Objectives:

  • Participants will develop a greater awareness of challenges faced by large districts as autism prevalence rates have increased.
  • Participants will be able to cite the advantages of a comprehensive psycho-educational evaluation as it relates to differential diagnosis, guiding eligibility determination decisions, determining placement settings and developing IEP goals.
  • Participants will learn the approach taken by one large school district to develop a long-range plan to strategically provide professional development to its staff with limited resources.

Content Area: Early Intervention


Valerie Buckley, CAS
Certified School Psychologist & Chairperson of District Autism Committee
Duval County Public Schools

Valerie Buckley has been a school psychologist for 16 years, both in Virginia and Florida. Prior to becoming a school psychologist, she taught in a K-6 ESE self-contained classroom in North Carolina. Valerie instructed ASD students as a teacher and now assesses students for the possibility of spectrum disorders.

Susan Hatcher, Psy.S.
Licensed and Certified School Psychologist & Member of District Autism Committee
Duval County Public Schools

Susan Hatcher has been a school psychologist in Duval County in Jacksonville, Florida, for six years. Prior to that, she worked as an ESE teacher in a variety of settings and as an Instructional Program Specialist providing supplemental educational services to students in private schools across the United States.

Susan Leach, M.Ed.
Supervisor, School Psychology, School Social Work & Section 504
Duval County Public Schools

Susan Leach is a licensed school psychologist, Supervisor of School Psychology for DCPS and adjunct faculty at Nova Southeastern University. Prior to relocating to Florida, Ms. Leach worked as a school psychologist, therapist and behavior specialist in Pennsylvania, where she served children with mental health disorders and their families.