Teens with autism to learn job skills from virtual training tool

November 24, 2020

A team of researchers from Michigan State University, University of Michigan and tech-training company SIMmersion received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to develop a virtual reality training tool for youth with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, to improve their social skills as they transition from high school to the workforce.

The research team expects this training tool, called Social Cognitive and Affective Learning for Work, or SOCIAL-Work, will teach young adults with ASD to communicate effectively with customers and colleagues in the workplace.

Mother working with child at home on the computer and iPad.

According to Connie Sung, associate professor of rehabilitation counseling in MSU’s College of Education and director of the Supporting Transition and Employment Preparation Lab, approximately 60,000 “transition youth” with ASD become ready to enter the workplace each year but need help developing the soft skills needed to hold jobs.

“Work-related social skills, often called soft skills, are essential for workplace success,” Sung said. “For individuals with ASD, soft skills don’t always come naturally, but it’s definitely something they can learn and get better at. The SOCIAL-Work tool will provide a virtual learning platform that allows the users to build and practice their soft skills in a fun, interactive and engaging way. We expect this tool will help individuals with autism, particularly those who are transitioning into the world of work, to improve their soft skills and, ultimately, post-school and employment outcomes.”

“The key to building conversation skills is repeated practice with feedback,” said Laura Humm, chief operating officer at SIMmersion. “We’re integrating our PeopleSim® conversation engine into a 3D version of Wondersmart, the fictional big box store used in our job interview training simulations. Like in those trainings, an on-screen coach will give tips and feedback, and each level can be played multiple times, because, just like in real life, no two conversations are ever the same.”  

Level one, Understanding People in the Workplace, will include nine modules that focus on how to use tone of voice, facial expression, body language and context to evaluate an interaction and decide how to act. Level two, Workplace Conversations, will include practice conversations about appropriately responding to customer needs, building rapport with a co-worker and debriefing with a supervisor. Level three, Virtual Workday, will guide users through understanding how decisions made during the workday can play out later. For example, a poor customer interaction may result in constructive feedback from a supervisor.

The development of the tool will be conducted with the University of Michigan’s Level Up: Employment Skills Simulation Lab, whose mission is to use technology to help enhance employment outcomes for underserved and marginalized communities, according to Matthew Smith, associate professor in the U-M School of Social Work.

“One of the exciting things about this project is that we are working directly with the autism community, teachers, employers and diversity experts to develop an intervention that not only seeks to assist autistic youth to sustain employment but also is inclusive for autistic youth from diverse communities — an approach that is often overlooked,” Smith said. “We are truly grateful for the National Institute of Mental Health and its commitment to the development and evaluation of services that may help support the transition of autistic youth into the workforce.”

In the news

Spartan Project SEARCH, co-directed by Connie Sung and Marisa Fisher, was included in a feature story by the American Psychological Association (APA), highlighting ways researchers are intensifying efforts to make health care, jobs and other facets of life more equitable for those with disabilities.

This article originally appeared on MSU Today.