MSU receives $1M grant to build work-related skills for youth with autism

May 3, 2017

Connie Sung (far left) poses with instructors and participants of the ASSET program.

Michigan State University has received a $1.4 million grant to expand a work-related social skills training program for youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorder.

While efforts are growing to help youth with autism improve social skills, few programs focus specifically on teaching the skills needed to get and keep jobs. A pilot program created by MSU researcher Connie Sung has shown promising results for the population when they most need help preparing for the workplace: the transition from high school to adulthood.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Autism Research Program, Sung and her colleagues plan to expand and test the innovative program over a four-year study, ultimately producing a curriculum that can be used by schools and communities around the nation.

“Like any other group, young people with autism deserve a chance to be taught social skills so they can be successful,” said Gloria Lee, an associate professor of rehabilitation counseling working with Sung on the project.

People often overlook the challenges faced by young adults who may have strong cognitive and language skills but lack understanding about considering others’ perspectives, being flexible or meeting expectations as employees. “Since we know that work is an important part of our lives, we need to contribute knowledge about the best ways to meet this unique demand,” Lee said.

The researchers will start by collecting recommendations for improving the Assistive Social Skills and Employment Training (ASSET) program from young people with autism who have participated over the last three years, as well as their caregivers, special education teachers and local employment specialists.

The pilot program consists of 10 weekly sessions, in which five or six high school students meet after school with instructors on the MSU campus. Using an existing job skills curriculum modified for youth with autism, they explore themes such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving and professionalism.

Once they complete ASSET, transition-age students can move into a complementary program called Employment Preparation And Skills Support (EPASS), which is focused on steps for finding employment, such as preparing resumes and handling interviews. In total, 27 students have completed both programs through partnerships with the Ingham Intermediate School District and the MSU Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities.

The researchers will make modifications to the ASSET program and then study its impact more broadly. Ninety-six students with autism will be randomly assigned to participate or be placed on a wait list to participate at multiple community-based settings in Michigan and Illinois.

“With the pilot, we have seen not only a significant improvement in their social communication skills but also their level of confidence for handling issues that could come up while working,” said Sung, assistant professor of rehabilitation counseling. “It will be exciting to expand the research and eventually disseminate something that teachers and counselors can implement in their own communities.”

Martin Volker, associate professor of school psychology at MSU, is also assisting on the project with a focus on assessment. The pilot program was funded by a seed grant from the Research in Autism, Intellectual and other Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (RAIND) initiative at MSU. Nicole Ditchman and Eun-Jeong Lee of the Illinois Institute of Technology are also partnering on the project.

Update 2/6/18: “The project has become an inter-agency collaboration,” Sung said. Michigan Rehabilitation Services, the Disability Network Capital Area and high schools in Ingham County are all working together to enact the program. Among these groups, Holt High School and J. W. Sexton High School (Lansing) in Michigan are currently piloting the program for students with developmental disabilities. Advocacy, Reentry, Resources and Outreach (ARRO), an organization for those who have criminal records, is piloting the program in the greater community.

“We are looking into expanding it to more local schools and also getting other community agencies involved,” she added.