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Images: Larry Fink

Helping Autism Educators Through Project STAY

Kristi Morin develops Project STAY to help new teachers working with autistic students and improve teacher retention.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Kristi Morin is passionate about autism research. When asked what drew her to the field, she repeats a well-known quote from advocate Stephen Shore: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”

People with autism often have problems with social interaction, may exhibit restricted or repetitive behaviors or interests and have different ways of learning. But it’s the unique presentations that make it such a challenge for new educators to meet the specific needs of individuals with autism, said Morin, an assistant professor of special education.

That’s why Morin and her colleagues developed Project STAY, Supporting Teachers of Autism in Years 1-3. The four-year project will develop an induction program designed to meet the needs of new teachers working with autistic students in high-needs schools or districts.

In its first year, Morin and her assistants met with focus groups from four school districts and an education service agency that included new teachers, mentor teachers and district administrators. They talked about the support educators already receive and the additional support and training they need.

Now in its second year, Morin and her assistants are developing online modules to connect young teachers with mentors who can help with skills such as how to communicate appropriately, give feedback, develop independence and set goals.

In 2023, Morin hopes to launch a pilot program for a small group of new teachers and administrators to get feedback. By the fourth year, she hopes to roll it out to a larger group of school districts.

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For the project, Morin received a National Center for Special Education Research Early Career Research Award of $700,000, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Morin is collaborating with Grace Murphy, a doctoral student in special education, and Lee Kern, professor and director of the Center for Promoting Research to Practice at Lehigh, and director of Lehigh’s Autism Services Clinic.

Currently 315,000 teachers are in their first three years of teaching, according to Morin’s grant application for the project. Without intervention, more than 96,000 of those teachers will leave the field, with a disproportionate number leaving from special education and high-needs schools. This turnover negatively impacts students through the quality of teaching they receive and it leads to greater costs for the school district as officials recruit, hire and train new personnel, Morin says.

Project STAY is especially important as the country continues to experience a nationwide teacher shortage, Morin says. Among the reasons are inconsistent professional support for teachers, stagnant compensation and stressful working conditions, according to statistics cited by the Join Teach Plus and the National Center for Education and the Economy.

Teachers of autistic individuals may have a particularly difficult time. Individuals with autism learn a lot better through visual cues rather than verbal cues, but teachers may not have received that training.

“When they come into a classroom and see all of these needs, it can sometimes be overwhelming, especially because kids with autism are on a spectrum. No two kids are the same,” Morin says. There’s a big difference between learning these skills in a classroom, but then being faced with a caseload of students with varying needs, she added.

“Let’s give them the support that they need so they don’t also leave,” Morin said.

Morin is a board-certified behavior analyst. She received her Ph.D in special education with an emphasis on autism and developmental disabilities from Texas A&M University. She did postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Story by

Christina Tatu

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