Clarissa Willis, PhD, is an associate professor of education at the University of Southern Indiana. She has been involved in early childhood education for over thirty years, including experience in public school, early intervention, curriculum development, and teacher training. With the philosophy that children should be educated through exploration and discovery, Dr. Willis offers a unique perspective on issues related to early childhood development and early childhood special education. She has written 19 teacher-resource books, including the award-winning Inclusive Literacy Lessons with Dr. Pam Schiller and Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
My Child Has Autism
- iParenting Media Award
- Mom's Choice Award
- PTPA Seal of Approval
- Teacher's Choice Award
Teaching Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
- iParenting Media Award
- Mom's Choice Award
Inclusive Literacy Lessons
- Early Childhood News Director's Choice Award
Praise for Teaching Young Children with Autism:
"Very informative! Very well organized!"
—Autism Society of America, Great GA Chapter
"Our statewide resource center contains a large and comprehensive collection on ASD for parents and professionals. With increased early diagnosis, this book promises to be a popular and highly recommended title in the collection."
—Chet Brandt, Director, Illinois Early Childhood Intervention Clearinghouse
Q) How did you become interested in working with children with autism spectrum disorder?
A) As a speech pathologist and later the grant administrator for Tennessee’s Early Intervention System, I became increasingly aware of the need to work closely with children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. As I traveled the country speaking on children with autism, I found that teachers and parents wanted simple, concrete strategies to enable them to help children with autism.
Q) You have been working with children with autism spectrum disorder and their families for more than 20 years. How has the field changed since you first began your career?
A) First of all, the whole concept of autism has evolved from a deficit model in which children were viewed as lacking certain essential skills to a much more proactive model. Today, we recognize that children with autism, and all children, have strengths and weaknesses and that autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning an individual child might have one or more characteristics, ranging from mild to quite severe, depending on the child.
Q) In your book, My Child Has Autism, you concentrate on helping families understand the mind of a child with autism, rather than focusing on "fixing" the child. Why do you think this is such an important distinction for families?
A) Children with autism are amazing. Although there can and will be challenges, especially in areas like communication, social skills, and behavior, there are also so many exciting things that children with autism can experience and enjoy. What I hope parents will learn from reading this book is that each child is unique, and all children can learn. It is up to us to determine the best ways to support them.
Q) Recent books feature therapies that promise to cure children with autism. What do you say to families who are looking at these possible cures?
A) At this time, there is no cure. That said, with early intervention and support systems children with autism can and do make significant progress. No product is going to ‘cure’ autism. However, there are processes that minimize some of the challenges related to autism. I think it is critical that families recognize that anyone can claim a cure and that credible, scientifically based research by people with experience working with children with autism is a much better source of information than some of the ‘fast’ cures we often read about in the tabloids or see advertised on television.
Q) In the last few years, high-profile media coverage on autism has increased. How do you think these high-profile stories help or hinder everyday families who are dealing with an autism diagnosis?
A) I think these high-profile cases , such as celebrities who have published books on how they are coping with their child who has autism, help us recognize the need for more information on this subject. However, because all children with autism are unique, what has worked for one child may not work for someone else. Also, in the high-profile cases, the family involved has unlimited financial resources. The reality is, most families face major financial constraints. I think it is important that families know there are resources available to them.
Q) What are the benefits of teaching children with autism in inclusive learning environments?
A) For the past thirty years I have maintained that if a child with special needs only goes to school with others with special needs his world will be limited. This is true for any group that is separated due to ability level. However, because there are some specific strategies that help children with autism function better in social settings and because each child is different, each child’s most appropriate learning environment depends largely on the child, his behavior, and his family. I think inclusion is important, but some children are not at a level where they can tolerate large groups. It is important to take a team approach to work toward including a child with autism in inclusive learning settings, but it may be gradual process.
Q) Once their child is diagnosed with autism, what should families do?
A) Having worked frequently with families of children who were newly diagnosed, I think it is important for them to realize they are not alone. As professionals and teachers, we must help them learn to access available community resources and provide information written by reputable sources who know and understand autism spectrum disorder. If possible, I always try to answer questions and listen to families as they begin to understand how to help their child. I suggest that families get involved with organizations such as Autism Society of America, and when they are ready I always suggest family support groups. Families need to know they are not alone in this journey.