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Study: Intensive training improves job chances for youth with autism

8/6/2013, 10:25 a.m.
For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that the right supports can help young adults with autism achieve high rates ...

For the first time, researchers have demonstrated that the right supports can help young adults with autism achieve high rates of quality employment. A recently-released Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) study shows intensive job training benefits youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Researchers note that ASD is one of the most challenging disabilities for job placement with an employment rate of approximately 20 percent.

Published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, the study demonstrates that nine months of intensive internship training, in conjunction with an engaged hospital, can lead to high levels of competitive employment in areas such as cardiac care, wellness, ambulatory surgery and pediatric intensive care units.

“This is the first study of its kind to demonstrate the skills and abilities youth with ASD have and the success they can experience at work,” said Paul H. Wehman, Ph.D., principal investigator of the study and professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and director of the VCU Autism Center at the VCU School of Education. “Previous research in this area showed that youth with ASD were employed at lower rates than even their peers with other disabilities.”

Traditionally, youth with autism between the ages of 18 and 22 remain unemployed after leaving school at rates of more than 80 percent. But VCU researchers reported that those who completed a program called “Project SEARCH with Autism Supports” achieved employment at 87 percent. This study also showed that youth with ASD required less intense support as they became more competent at their work tasks.

VCU partnered on the study with Bon Secours Richmond Health System St. Mary's Hospital in Henrico County, Va., and St. Francis Medical Center in Chesterfield County, Va.; Henrico County Public Schools; Chesterfield County Public Schools; and the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS).

“Bon Secours has participated in Project SEARCH since 2010 and each year we find the students add a tremendous value to our team of caregivers,” said Michael Spine, senior vice president of business development for Bon Secours Health System. “Project SEARCH graduates are permanent and important members of our staff, working throughout the hospitals in a variety of areas, including labor and delivery, our cardiac units and wellness.”

“Witnessing how these ‘disabled students’ are transformed into valued employees and colleagues during their Project SEARCH year is the best example of how our system can be successful when our collaboration is employed,” said James A. Rothrock, commissioner of the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services.

“Getting a job is the central accomplishment in life for all 20-year-olds,” said study co-investigator Carol M. Schall, Ph.D., director of technical assistance for the VCU Autism Center for Excellence and Virginia Autism Resource Center. “For far too long, youth with ASD have been left out of that elated feeling that adults have when they get their first real employment. Through this study, we were able to demonstrate that youth with ASD can be successful employees.”

Youth with autism were employed in jobs not typically considered for those with disabilities in a hospital setting. They worked 20 to 40 hours per week and were paid 24 percent more than minimum wage.

“Studies like this show us that when afforded the opportunity – in this case with focused job training – individuals with autism can apply their skills and play an important role in today’s competitive workforce,” said Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks assistant director for public health research.