Research In Focus: A Weekly Digest of New Research from the NIDILRR Community

The Right Supports Can Improve Opportunities for Job Seekers with Autism Spectrum Disorders

A study funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that begins early in childhood and lasts throughout a person's life. ASD can affect how a person acts and interacts with others, communicates, and learns. For example: A person with ASD may express ideas and emotions differently, may exhibit repetitive behaviors, or may have difficulty adapting to new or changing situations. These challenges can make it difficult for young adults with ASD to find competitive integrated employment in their community that pays a wage commensurate to their peers without disabilities in the same job. Vocational rehabilitation (VR) and special education programs have been shown to improve opportunities for young people with ASD, helping them build social and job skills and address behavioral issues as they search for competitive employment. A recent NIDILRR-funded study compared two such programs to see which program might have better impact on employment and wages for these young job seekers.

Researchers from the project on Vocational Rehabilitation Service Models for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (VCU ASD Career Links) compared data from two groups of adults with ASD who received VR services.  One group only received supported employment services (SE-only group) and the second group that participated in a program called “Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports” before receiving the SE services (PS-ASD+SE). Supported employment is an evidence-based VR practice to support job seekers with disabilities in finding, learning, and maintaining a job. At the beginning, job seekers receive high levels of support from counselors, and that support is reduced as the person gains more confidence and independence at work. Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports is a program for high school students with ASD that combines internships with intensive supports to help them successfully transition from school to competitive employment.

For this study, the researchers reviewed the records of 45 adults with ASD who received SE services through an agency in Virginia, 20 of whom also participated in PS-ASD. Participants in the SE-only group received services and support from VR counselors to develop and understand their job seeker profile, identify the right job opportunities, and go through job site training. Once the SE-only participants secured a job, they received long term supports to maintain their employment. Participants in the PS-ASD+SE group spent their last year of high school rotating through three internships with local businesses, where they received on-site, intensive instruction, support, and assessments from staff with special training in ASD and the Project SEARCH model. After graduating from the program, PS-ASD+SE participants transitioned to adult services and continued to receive SE services in job development, job site training, and long term supports. PS-ASD+SE participants did not receive job seeker profile services when they transitioned to the SE program, since the PS-ASD program includes similar learning and assessment opportunities.

The researchers compared the outcomes of the SE-only and PS-ASD+SE groups to determine how many hours each participant spent in job development, job site training, and long-term support; how many participants retained employment at 6, 12, and 18 months; and whether there was a difference in average wages earned between the SE-only and the PS-ASD+SE group. The results were as follows:

  • Time: Participants in the PS-ASD+SE group required less time in the job development phase to secure a job than participants in the SE-only group. Participants in both groups spent about the same amount of time in the job site training and long-term support phases of supported employment.
  • Job retention: Although the participants in both groups retained employment up to 18 months, those in the PS-ASD+SE group were employed at significantly higher rates at 12 and 18 months than those in the SE-only group.
  • Wages: Participants in the SE-only group earned an average wage of $8.82 per hour, while participants in the PS-ASD+SE group earned an average wage of $9.89 per hour, over $1 more. This was significant because, as a group, the SE-only group had higher levels of education, which is usually associated with higher wages.

The authors suggested that the PS-ASD program may have offered certain advantages for participants in the PS-ASD+SE group, including extensive career exploration and development activities as well as opportunities to gain work experience through the internships. Career development activities may have given participants a strong understanding of their skill strengths and employment preferences, as well as adding to résumé items and references. These added qualifications may make them attractive candidates as they started their job search activities and thus, reducing the time needed to secure a job. The internship experience may have prepared PS-ASD+SE participants for the personal challenges that work presents, such as changing schedules or environments, accepting errors and correction, and meeting assignments. That preparation may have led to better job retention rates. Finally, the PS-ASD+SE program provided internship opportunities in high-need, high-turnover positions in the health industry which may also have worked to the advantage of program participants in terms of wages.

The authors noted that both groups were successful in achieving competitive, community-based employment. This showed that, with intensive, individualized supports, job seekers with ASD can secure and maintain competitive employment in their communities. To help students with ASD, state VR agencies, departments of education, and Medicaid Waiver programs may want to look to models like Project SEARCH that offer intensive job skill development during the final years of school, giving these young adults a strong start as they explore career opportunities.

To learn more:

VCU continues to study Project SEARCH under a 2012-2016 NIDILRR grant. Learn more about the project, including archived webinars:

The VCU Autism Center for Excellent conducts research, training, and education on autism spectrum disorder:

Project SEARCH is being replicated in communities across the US. Find a local program, or learn how to start one:

Pacer’s National Parent Center on Transition and Employment explains supported employment with a good collection of resources:

To learn more about this study

Schall, C.M., Wehman, P., Brooke, V., Graham, C., McDonough, J., Brooke, A., Ham, W., Rounds, R., Lau, S., and Allen, J. (2015) Employment interventions for individuals with ASD: The relative efficacy of supported employment with or without prior Project SEARCH training. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 3990-4001. This article is available from the NARIC collection under Accession Number J73204.

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