Facilitating the Transition to Employment for Young Adult Military Dependents with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted April 24, 2019

Paul Wehman, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University
Carol Schall, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University

Dr. Paul Wehman
Dr. Paul Wehman

Dr. Carol Schall
Dr. Carol Schall

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition that causes difficulties in communication and social interaction.  Young adults living with ASD often experience challenges with their transition from high school to employment, as well as higher rates of unemployment and underemployment compared to those with other disabilities.  The risk for poor outcomes may be even greater for military dependents with ASD, as they are subject to frequent relocation and lack consistent access to support programs that assist with the transition to employment.  Currently, there is very little research on transitioning to employment that might improve the unemployment and underemployment rates for young adults with ASD.  Furthermore, there are no studies on the needs of military dependents with ASD within this transition age group.  Further research on this population is necessary to investigate the clinical impact in young adults and military dependents with ASD.

With support from a Fiscal Year 2015 Autism Research Program Clinical Trial Award, Drs. Paul Wehman and Carol Schall are assessing the effectiveness of Project SEARCH, a 9-month employment-based training program for improving social communication, behavior, and employment outcomes for transition-aged youth with ASD.  Project SEARCH requires collaboration with several community partners to support young adults in gaining employment after completing the program.  Young adults with ASD who are in their last year of high school are immersed in large community businesses with real-world work environments such as hospitals, government complexes, or banking centers and rotate through three 10- to 12-week internships.  The students typically complete 720 internship hours learning marketable skills, plus an additional 180 hours of classroom time, for a total of 900 hours within these business settings.  Outcomes of the participants are compared to those of an equal control group who do not receive the intervention.

To meet the unique needs of military dependents with ASD, Dr. Wehman and his team enhanced the original Project SEARCH model through the addition of Autism Supports, yielding Project SEARCH Plus ASD Supports (PS+ASD).  The modified PS+ASD program provides an opportunity for military youth to learn job skills at their current installation that can be generalized to new installations in the event of a relocation.  PS+ASD consists of intensive applied behavioral analysis, support from an on-site behavior and autism specialist, and staff training in ASD and the Project SEARCH model.  Participation in the Project SEARCH model has been shown to improve independence, social responsiveness, self-management, work skills, and quality of life.  The PS+ASD model has been implemented at a site at Fort Eustis at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia.  The first cohort of the program has graduated, and 83% have accepted competitive employment offers. Most offers of employment have been on local bases while a few participants are working in their home communities.

This interventional PS+ASD model provides the necessary elements for a seamless and successful transition from school to employment for military dependents with ASD.  Dr. Wehman’s research has the potential to not only contribute to research and clinical practice, but also to meet the needs of military dependents with ASD by increasing employment opportunities and enhancing social communication.  If successful, this work will support professionals and military personnel by identifying viable treatment models in the transition to employment for military dependent youth with ASD.

Dr. Paul Wehman


Public and Technical Abstracts: Effect of a 9-Month Internship for the Transition-Aged Military Dependents with ASD

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Last updated Thursday, May 26, 2022