Rationale and Objective: Youth and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have difficulty making the transition from school to employment. Specifically, individuals with ASD across the ability spectrum experience unemployment and underemployment at higher rates than those with other disabilities after graduation from high school and well into their adulthood. Military dependents with ASD may be at greater risk of poor outcomes due to the mobile nature of their parents' jobs. They may not be in a location long enough to access supports due to extensive waiting lists for services or be able to apply for special transition programs due to having moved frequently and entering a new school division after such applications are accepted. This greatly impacts the individual with ASD as well as their parents who may not be able to take advantage of promotions that involve moving. Finally, transition programs that specifically target social communication and behavioral adjustment to employment are essential to ensuring that the promise of successful adult life is realized by these youth with ASD.
Study Participants and Potential Benefits: This project proposes to study the impact of a specific employment training program, Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports (PS+ASD), on the social communication, mental health, self-determination, and employment outcomes for military dependents with ASD. This project will likely help 18 to 22-year-old military dependents with ASD make the transition from school to employment by participating in a 9-month intensive employer-based intervention program (PS+ASD). Additionally, it is likely that this intervention will increase the social responsiveness mental health, and quality of life of these youth while also decreasing the incidence of depression and anxiety.
Potential Clinical Applications, Benefits, and Risks: Project SEARCH is an intensive 9-month job training program where youth with developmental disabilities in their last year of high school are embedded in a large community business such as a hospital, government complex, or banking center where they rotate through three 10-12 week internships within the business learning marketable skills, social communication, and adaptive behavior in the business setting. In order to meet the unique needs of youth with ASD, Wehman, et al. (2014) enhanced the Project SEARCH model by adding autism supports to the original model. Those added supports were: (1) onsite, intensive, systematic instruction using the principles of applied behavior analysis, (2) onsite support and consultation from a behavior/autism specialist, and (3) intensive staff training in ASD and the Project SEARCH Model. This resulted in PS+ASD. Previous research on this model indicated significantly higher employment rates and increased independence when compared to an equivalent control group. When modifying the intervention for military dependents, we anticipate the potential of higher employment upon graduation from high school. Like all youth who face graduation from high school, youth who participate in this program could experience increased stress and anxiety about their future.
Impact on ASD Research and Care/Programing: A review of the scientific literature on interventions for individuals with ASD reveals little research regarding transition to employment that might change the current pattern of significant unemployment and underemployment for youth with ASD. Further, there are no studies on the needs of military dependents with ASD in this transition age group. The proposed study has the potential to contribute to both research and clinical practice in meeting the needs of military dependents with ASD to increase employment, self-determination, social communication, and overall mental health.