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Teachers from China observe autism training at Riverview Jr./Sr. High School

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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Chinese autism teachers, from left, Daisy Peng, Qui Li, Moon Yu, and Annie Jia listen as Riverview eighth-grader John Gunter answers a question in math class at Riverview Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, May 1, 2015.
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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Chinese autism teachers, from left, Moon Yu, Annie Jia, Qui Li, and Daisy Peng join Riverview student Frank Principe and his special education teacher Michael Slencak in a discussion at Riverview Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, May 1, 2015.
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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Riverview student Frank Principe listens during a discussion of his education with Chinese teachers at Riverview Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, May 1, 2015.
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Eric Felack | Trib Total Media
Chinese autism teacher Annie Jia listens during a math class at Riverview Jr.-Sr. High School on Friday, May 1, 2015.

A group of teachers from China are spending time at Riverview Jr./Sr. High School in Oakmont as part of an autism education training program.

The four elementary school teachers who arrived from Beijing in March are learning how teachers integrate autistic students into the regular classroom and how to customize curriculum for special needs students.

These are concepts not widely used in China, the teachers said.

“In China, educating the autistic is just beginning,” Annie Jia said.

Autism education there started in 1990 with intervention mainly for young children. Compared with Pennsylvania’s strong history of special education, the approach is in its infancy.

“In that period, Chinese teachers tried to learn more from other countries and practice their skills,” she said. “It’s critical to find the best way to train teachers in a systematic way of teaching.”

The teachers are training at Duquesne University and have observed classes in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system.

The teachers’ visit is part of a recently formed partnership between the Beijing Autism Association and the South East Asia Prayer Center in Oakmont. The 10-year agreement focuses on training families and teachers to address the needs of children with autism.

The two countries will each host trainers and set up an online training center to study the causes of autism and set protocols for the education of autistic children in China.

The project will begin in Beijing and expand to establish training centers in each Chinese province.

SEAPC is a nonprofit Christian organization that has worked in a number of countries to spread Christianity and help with health, education, parenting and economic development.

For many years, SEAPC has incorporated helping autistic children into its mission, and over the years its members have prayed about how to do so on a larger scale, said Matt Geppert, president of the center.

In China, older autistic students attend “special schools,” called autism training centers, where they learn basic living skills and receive job training, Jia said.

With China’s large population comes a high incidence of autism, and the Chinese have been searching for a way to better educate autistic children and serve that population, Geppert said.

“It’s been difficult to provide enough teachers and places for children living with autism,” he said. “They are hungry for the best education.”

The partnership agreement will develop a database of international resources, training methods and educational practices that will be used to form a standardized education method. That method, similar to best practices in U.S. education, would be the government-recommended approach to autistic education and intervention, Geppert said.

The teachers visiting Riverview have observed how essential life skills are acquired through community-based learning in which students get jobs at local businesses.

They have observed a special education classroom to see how math curriculum can be adapted. In the next few weeks, the teachers will adapt their own lessons to teach, said school Principal Tiffany Nix.

“We have a very small rate (of special education students) that we sent out to private schools,” Nix said. “I was proud to show them the growth rates of our students.”

The Chinese teachers are learning more about the Applied Behavioral Analysis strategy of educating autistic students. This is a tool that uses techniques such as rewards to bring about meaningful and positive change in behavior.

When combined with classroom lessons, the strategy is effective for the autistic because it can foster basic skills such as looking, listening and imitating, as well as complex skills like reading and speaking.

“In China we already have ABA, but it’s not very systematic,” said Daisy Peng, who has been teaching for about four years. “So we have come to learn a systematic strategy and we will use it when we go back.”

Each of the visiting teachers will receive a certification in the ABA method. They’ll be returning to Beijing in a few weeks.

Jodi Weigand is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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