A new program aimed at helping high school students with autism spectrum disorder to develop work-related social skills will launch this fall in a sample of high schools in Illinois and Michigan. The program is part of a multi-year, $1.4 million collaborative study involving Illinois Institute of Technology Associate Professors of Psychology Nicole Ditchman and Eun-Jeong Lee, and was piloted this spring at Evanston Township High School, with promising results.
The grant, awarded through the United States Department of Defense, will fund intervention programming in a total of eight to 10 high schools in Illinois and Michigan through 2021. Ditchman and Lee are co-investigators on the project, which is led by Principal Investigator Connie Sung, an associate professor of rehabilitation counseling at Michigan State University. Along with her team of researchers, Sung previously developed and piloted a program called ASSET, or the Assistive Social Skills and Employment Training program, which was offered to young adults. With Ditchman and Lee now working in collaboration with Sung and her colleagues, the group is preparing to offer a modified version of the original ASSET program, which is specifically geared toward students with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder.
“We’re looking at students with autism, but not necessarily those with more significant intellectual disabilities: individuals who can read at a second-grade reading level, who have at least a 70 verbal IQ,” Ditchman says. “These individuals are at risk for a range of social and communication challenges, but often are underserved.”
The program is a 10-week intervention focused on teaching skills, including problem-solving, self-awareness, self-care, stress management, communication, and teamwork. It incorporates learning approaches including roleplaying, in addition to a lot of visual aids and repetition. Participating students range in ages from 14 to 22 and attend one 90-minute session per week, with occasional homework required. Facilitators of the program are utilizing a manual initially developed for the ASSET program, which Ditchman and Lee have helped modify and expand, tailoring the content toward high-school students with autism who are preparing to enter the workforce.
“These are really essential skills,” Ditchman says of the program’s offerings. “It’s how you interact with your supervisor, your co-workers. [These are] things that we see that—in the literature too, for individuals with autism—can be more challenging in different work settings. They may not recognize when someone’s being sarcastic or humorous, or they may not know how to advocate for a need that they have.”
The timing of when to offer this form of intervention to students is also important, Lee says.
“A lot of times, once school ends, there is a lack of transition from the education setting to the workforce setting,” she says. “Families get lost in how to navigate the system, and then they’re done with the school so [the school] cannot really offer extra help. There is a great need, and I think this manual [used in the intervention program] can be very useful for many other populations, not only [individuals with] autism spectrum disorder.”
Ditchman and Lee are running the program in the Illinois schools with the help of three graduate research assistants— Brian Cerny, Julia Thomas, and Jonathan Tsen—as well as program facilitators located in the schools. Sung and her team are running the program at the high schools in Michigan. The two groups aim to facilitate the program in four or five schools per state over the next two years.
Ditchman and Lee oversaw the execution of a pilot program at Evanston Township High School in spring 2019, and in the fall will formally launch the program in additional area schools while also running it at Evanston Township again. Preliminary results from the pilot program in Evanston are positive.
“We’re pretty optimistic,” Ditchman says. “At the end of the project, we expect to see positive results.”
Liz Schroeder, a special education teacher at Evanston Township High School, took on the role of facilitating Ditchman and Lee’s pilot of the autism intervention program this spring.
“Through weekly implementation of the ASSET curriculum I have watched students develop their social skills and become more comfortable engaging in discussions,” Schroeder says. “On multiple occasions they have verbalized connections made between material we are covering in a session and ways they could personally apply it in the workplace.”
Ditchman and Lee hope to leverage the data from these programs toward follow-up research benefiting the same population. As young adults with autism prepare to enter the workforce, they face challenges beyond the scope of the program now being launched.
“Although we really believe strongly in the project, it’s not everything,” Ditchman says. “We need to make sure there are adult service supports that are helping the transition age [population]—as well as the school—[and] really getting people supported in jobs so they can work in the community for competitive pay. This program is a first step to build work-related self-efficacy by helping students learn about their rights, identify and advocate for their support needs, and learn the ‘soft skills’ necessary for securing and maintaining employment.”
Lee echoed Ditchman’s desire to help ensure positive employment outcomes for the students.
“Definitely we want to see the effectiveness of the intervention, but if there’s a way we can bring more of a reality component, make the connection with [an] internship opportunity, [then] we can actually work with the demand side of employment,” Lee says. “We can work along not only with the school but with the potential employers, so we can see the end of the intervention.”
Connie Sung, Gloria Lee, Martin Volker, Nicole Ditchman, and Eun-Jeong Lee, "Evaluating an Employment-Related Social Skills Training Program for Transition-Age Youth with Autism (the ASSET Program): A Randomized Controlled Trial Study", U.S. Department of Defense, ($1,385,810; Illinois Tech: $259,774).