(Photo by Mark Jensen)

St. Thomas Launches Online Graduate Program in Autism Spectrum Disorders

The University of St. Thomas’ College of Education, Leadership and Counseling this fall will offer a fully online, graduate-level Special Education-Autism Spectrum Disorders Program.

This is the university’s second fully online graduate program; in April it launched a Master of Arts in public safety and law enforcement leadership.

The autism spectrum disorders program features four tracks:

  • Master of Arts in special education with an autism spectrum disorders license,
  • Master of Arts in special education with a  specialization in autism spectrum disorders (nonlicense),
  • Special education teacher license in autism spectrum disorders,
  • For-credit graduate certificate in autism spectrum disorders.

Individuals new to teaching also can obtain an initial special-education teaching license online. The program is geared toward teachers; paraprofessionals; childcare workers; behavioral, physical and speech/language therapists; and other professionals who work closely with individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Open enrollment began July 15 with classes starting Oct. 21.

St. Thomas began offering special education courses nearly 40 years ago and today offers on-campus programs in six areas of licensure. Autism spectrum disorders is the first special education program at St. Thomas to also be offered online.

The university’s approach to special education focuses on what students with autism can accomplish, instead of on their weaknesses. The program teaches ways to build on each learner’s strengths, so that he or she can become as independent and successful as possible.

“We have high expectations that every student can learn and grow,” says Dr. Terri Vandercook, chair of the Special Education and Gifted Education Department. “Our program isn’t about lowering expectations. It’s about identifying each student’s abilities and building on those strengths to help them become as independent and successful as possible.”

Dr. Lynn Stansberry-Brusnahan, one of the program’s lead faculty members (and the 2012 Autism Society Professional of the Year) adds, “Students on the autism spectrum sometimes communicate in different ways and may learn on different timetables. We support our adult learners to learn evidence-based best practices for helping children and youth with autism communicate with people and the world around them.”

The special education online program’s director is Jo Montie, a member of St. Thomas’ Special Education and Gifted Education Department since 2003. A former special education teacher with more than 25 years of experience, Montie brings expertise in curriculum content, adult-learner pedagogy and systems change to her work in developing a program that now will reach a national and international community.

The online program is offered in partnership with Tampa-based Bisk Education. Last year St. Thomas selected Bisk, founded in 1971, to assist in developing and delivering online programs. University Alliance, a division of Bisk, also partners with universities such as Villanova, Notre Dame, Scranton, Florida Tech and Michigan State to deliver online degree and professional certificate programs.

In partnership with Bisk, St. Thomas in April launched its first fully online degree program, a Master of Arts in public safety and law enforcement leadership. The program serves law enforcement and public safety professionals who are seeking advanced skills to become leaders in their fields.

Credit hours for the Special Education-Autism Spectrum Disorders Program vary depending on the track students select and whether they hold a teaching license and/or have teaching experience before entering the program. The master’s degree track requires 30 to 34 credits; the license-only track requires 28 to 30 credits; and the certificate track requires 15 credits.

Class-time learning is 100 percent online, with the exception of practice student teaching if students choose the license track. Out-of-class work also includes practical, applied assignments in educational and community settings that students personalize to their learning situation.

Each course is eight weeks long with six start dates per year. Students and professors communicate, network online and complete assignments through technology powered by University Alliance. The program features professor-led video-based lectures, downloadable audio and video files, live sessions with visual whiteboards and more.

The program’s virtual community includes professor-hosted discussion boards, live chat rooms, email, social networking, group study and sharing, and 24-hour technical support. The online classroom is accessible from any Internet-ready device, including tablets and mobile phones.

For information about the online Special Education-Autism Spectrum Disorders or the Public Safety and Law Enforcement Leadership programs visit www.stthomasonline.com or call (855) 295-1867. The website also can be accessed through the graduate admissions and College of Education, Leadership and Counseling pages on St. Thomas’ home page at www.stthomas.edu.

The St. Thomas program manager for the Bisk programs is Dr. Mary Reichardt. A member of the St. Thomas faculty since 1988, she now serves as the university’s first director of online education. She can be reached at mrreichardt@stthomas.edu or (651) 962-6040.