Internship program boosted employment rates for students with autism

A year-long internship program assisted students with autism find and maintain employment after high school, according to findings in a randomized study recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Young adults with autism spectrum disorders in the general population face unemployment rates of more than 80%; however, 87.5% of the trial participants of Project SEARCH, adapted for the study with ASD Supports, found employment.

“Previous research in this area showed that youth with ASD were employed at lower rates than even their peers with other disabilities,” Paul H. Wehman, PhD, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and director of the Autism Center at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said in a press release.

Paul Wehman, PhD 

Paul H. Wehman

Forty participants aged 18 to 21 years were randomly assigned to the control group (n=16) or the treatment group (n=24). Differences of race, sex, medical diagnosis and Individualized Education Plan service category were not statistically significant between the groups. However, the treatment group was significantly older (mean age, 19.97 years vs. 19.13 years; P=.024).

At baseline, there was no difference in paid, part-time employment (P=.478) or unpaid internships (P=.312) between the two groups. According to the Support Needs Index, intensity support requirement was also comparable (control, 80.87 vs. treatment, 82).

During the trial period, the final year of high school for the treatment group was composed of 1-hour, 45-minute daily classes and three internship rotations at one of two hospitals in Richmond, Va. The group also received educational and employment assistance from a local education agency, a local community rehabilitation program and the state vocational rehabilitation program.

Participants in the control group did not receive additional external supports beyond those outlined in their Individualized Education Plans.

Results from the Fisher’s exact test indicated a significant difference in the number of participants who gained employment after high school in each group, with 87.5% (n=21) of those in the treatment group finding employment vs. 6.25% (n=1) of the control group (P<.001). Jobs found included pharmacy technician, ICU assistant, teacher’s aide, surgical care technician and clerical assistant.

At 3 months post-intervention, the number of employed participants did not change, although those in the treatment group saw slight increases in weekly hours worked (mean hours, 17.92 vs. 18.13). Researchers also noted a decrease in scores on the employment activities subscale of the Supports Needs Index in the treatment group (mean score, 7.65), which was statistically different from the control group (mean score, 8.58; P=.004).

“It appears that even 3 months of employment after an intensive internship transition program could prove to be therapeutic in that the intensity of support needs appear to decrease over this short of a period,” Wehman and colleagues wrote.

The researchers said possible reasons for the treatment group’s success may be collaboration between support and administrative groups, the staff’s previous experience and the employment-focused design of the intervention.

"This study provides evidence-based research indicating that youth with ASD can work in important support roles in a variety of hospital departments when given highly structured and intensive training using applied behavior analysis techniques,” Wehman said in an interview. “The significant outcomes and follow-up conducted over 3 years give reason for cautious optimism about the long-term community adjustment for adults with autism."

Disclosure: The study was funded with a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

A year-long internship program assisted students with autism find and maintain employment after high school, according to findings in a randomized study recently published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Young adults with autism spectrum disorders in the general population face unemployment rates of more than 80%; however, 87.5% of the trial participants of Project SEARCH, adapted for the study with ASD Supports, found employment.

“Previous research in this area showed that youth with ASD were employed at lower rates than even their peers with other disabilities,” Paul H. Wehman, PhD, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and director of the Autism Center at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said in a press release.

Paul Wehman, PhD 

Paul H. Wehman

Forty participants aged 18 to 21 years were randomly assigned to the control group (n=16) or the treatment group (n=24). Differences of race, sex, medical diagnosis and Individualized Education Plan service category were not statistically significant between the groups. However, the treatment group was significantly older (mean age, 19.97 years vs. 19.13 years; P=.024).

At baseline, there was no difference in paid, part-time employment (P=.478) or unpaid internships (P=.312) between the two groups. According to the Support Needs Index, intensity support requirement was also comparable (control, 80.87 vs. treatment, 82).

During the trial period, the final year of high school for the treatment group was composed of 1-hour, 45-minute daily classes and three internship rotations at one of two hospitals in Richmond, Va. The group also received educational and employment assistance from a local education agency, a local community rehabilitation program and the state vocational rehabilitation program.

Participants in the control group did not receive additional external supports beyond those outlined in their Individualized Education Plans.

Results from the Fisher’s exact test indicated a significant difference in the number of participants who gained employment after high school in each group, with 87.5% (n=21) of those in the treatment group finding employment vs. 6.25% (n=1) of the control group (P<.001). Jobs found included pharmacy technician, ICU assistant, teacher’s aide, surgical care technician and clerical assistant.

At 3 months post-intervention, the number of employed participants did not change, although those in the treatment group saw slight increases in weekly hours worked (mean hours, 17.92 vs. 18.13). Researchers also noted a decrease in scores on the employment activities subscale of the Supports Needs Index in the treatment group (mean score, 7.65), which was statistically different from the control group (mean score, 8.58; P=.004).

“It appears that even 3 months of employment after an intensive internship transition program could prove to be therapeutic in that the intensity of support needs appear to decrease over this short of a period,” Wehman and colleagues wrote.

The researchers said possible reasons for the treatment group’s success may be collaboration between support and administrative groups, the staff’s previous experience and the employment-focused design of the intervention.

"This study provides evidence-based research indicating that youth with ASD can work in important support roles in a variety of hospital departments when given highly structured and intensive training using applied behavior analysis techniques,” Wehman said in an interview. “The significant outcomes and follow-up conducted over 3 years give reason for cautious optimism about the long-term community adjustment for adults with autism."

Disclosure: The study was funded with a grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.