CSUMB Expertise: Students and Autism

Josh Harrower

Josh Harrower | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

June 2, 2022

By Walter Ryce

Josh Harrower is a professor in the Department of Education and Leadership. He coordinates the special education credential and masters programs and teaches courses in applied behavior analysis, positive behavior support, and teaching social communication skills. He also instructs aspiring teachers how to teach students with autism. 


Question: How do you describe autism?

Harrower: It's considered a developmental disability or delay that primarily affects social communication and behavior. There [can be] a restricted range of interests at the expense of other interests and you might see some repetitive behaviors and language. Some early signs might be a student who might line up objects in a row, difficulties in developing peer relationships, there could be a lack of eye contact, and facial expression that may not match that of others. Maybe some inflexibility with adapting to different routines or activities.


How prevalent is autism?

It is 1 in 44. That's the most recent [number] from the CDC. It does vary by region, likely due to availability of resources for early identification. The criteria has expanded significantly over the past 30 years. Now it's a spectrum disorder with the DSM 5 [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition]. The diagnostic tools are better, awareness is much, much better.


What have been some developments in autism spectrum disorder in the DSM-5?

Where there were previously different subtypes, now there are three levels of support identified as being required. [The term Asperger’s] is not part of the DSM-5 and it's no longer its own diagnostic category. However, we have a whole generation of people who were given that label.


What are likely causes of autism spectrum disorder? 

Genetics are clearly the leading candidate and there's significant evidence to support that. A few other possibilities have been ruled out — the MMR vaccine, for example, is not a cause of autism. There's been a number of research studies to confirm that. We can rule out vaccines. The current understanding is that a person with autism is born with autism.


How does an autism diagnosis affect a person’s quality of life? 

An important thing to note is if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. Its impact is so varied. A person with autism could have fully developed verbal communication skills. And another autistic person may not be able to use verbal communication at all. For those who require more extensive supports, it can impact the development of friendships, and lead a person to be highly isolated. Some behaviors can be challenging and might be harmful to themselves or others. Receiving a diagnosis can really help quality of life, because it can then provide access to evidence based services to help the individual achieve meaningful outcomes.


What support and access is available in Monterey County?

Well there is quite a lot available through the pre-Kindergarten through high school public school system. Schools can determine eligibility for special education services and provide those services to support high quality of life outcomes for students identified to have autism. There are a number of local agencies that provide in-home, clinic-based or community-based supports to the autism community. However, when it comes to accessing a high-quality evaluation, outside of the public school arena, options are unfortunately somewhat limited. As a result, I think a lot of families have to go outside of our region to get a comprehensive evaluation, one that makes use of the "gold standard" evaluation assessment tools. We have our Center for Educational Supports on campus. Right now our School Psychology program provides some evaluation services to our CSUMB undergrad students. Hopefully we'll be able to expand so that we could provide comprehensive evaluations to the broader community.


What other support is available to CSUMB students?

We have the Student Disability and Accessibility Center (SDAC) office on campus and they're very helpful in working with our student community to develop individualized learning plans that they can then take to their instructors. Autistic college students can get accommodations and modifications through the Americans with Disabilities Act. 


Do you instruct future teachers how to teach kids with autism? 

Absolutely. Part of both of our special education credentials authorize teachers to work with students with autism, among other disabilities. A number of our courses have a particular focus on applications for autistic students, for example on teaching social communication skills. We're finding that support strategies for the autism community are also extremely helpful for a much broader group of people and students. 


Are the terms “typical” and “atypical” relevant and accepted? 

I think we're seeing more of a use of “neuro-typical” for people who don't have autism — largely from the autism community — and “autism”, "autistic" or “neuro-diverse” or “asd,” for Autism Spectrum Disorder, for people with autism. Many in the autism community are advocating for the use of the term "autistic person" as opposed to "person with autism" which has traditionally been preferred in accordance with "person first" conventions when speaking about people with disabilities. As I regularly interact with groups who advocate for opposing terminology, I've chosen to use both "disability first" and "person first" terms interchangeably in our conversation.


Do people with autism have particular strengths? 

There are quite a few strengths and benefits that have been identified in the research. Things like pattern recognition, creative problem solving from a different perspective, visual skills. Autistic individuals have also been found to have some real enhanced skills around visual identification and acuity, memory and recall. 


What do you want people to be aware of regarding autism? 

I think just to take a moment to learn more and be more accepting of autistic people they know. We probably all know somebody with autism now, at this point, and they can bring real strengths and benefits to society and to personal relationships. Secondly, reach out to teachers and school psychologists, if they have concerns or recognize signs of autism. People can always contact me if they have a follow up question or want to know more.