VCU awarded $1.2 million grant to study transition to employment for military dependents with autism spectrum disorder

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Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have received a $1.2 million grant to investigate the impact of an evidence-based program that supports military dependents with autism spectrum disorder who are seeking employment after graduating high school.

The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program grant is funding a study measuring the impact of “Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports” on employment outcomes for military dependents with autism between the ages of 18 and 22.

Paul Wehman, Ph.D.
Paul Wehman, Ph.D.

This is the first known intervention study that specifically targets transition aged military dependents with autism, a group frequently described as doubly disadvantaged by their disability and their family member’s service.

The principal investigator is Paul Wehman, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the VCU School of Medicine and in the Department of Counseling and Special Education in the VCU School of Education.

"By subjecting PS-ASD to the rigor of a clinical trial designed for military dependents with [autism spectrum disorder], we expect to expand the model to include essential elements to meet the needs of this population of individuals who may be dually disadvantaged by their disability and their status as military dependents,” Wehman said. “Such information may lead to the development of improved outcomes for these individuals and reduce stress for their families.”

The program’s model provides an option for youth with autism who seek employment upon graduation from high school by providing training in vocational, social communication, and self-management skills using applied behavior analysis in the settings where those skills will be used.

Immersion in a nine-month internship program via PS-ASD appears to improve self-management, independence, social responsiveness, work skills, and quality of life, but further research like the proposed project is required to observe the impact of this model for military dependents with ASD. This proposed project will assist professionals and military personnel in identifying viable treatment models for military dependents in transition to adulthood — a critical need for a population that frequently does not receive such intensive transition services because of the mobility the families face while in the military.

As part of the grant, VCU will partner with Fort Eustis, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, Newport News Public Schools, Hampton City Public Schools, and other local school divisions to identify students and develop the Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports model.

"We are excited about our partnership with VCU and the internship opportunities we are able to provide to our military families," said Col. Ralph L. Clayton III, 733rd Mission Support Group Commander at Joint Base Langley-Eustis Va. "Our military dependents with disabilities will have a fostering environment in which they can build upon their strengths and individual skills as they prepare to transition from high school and into the workforce."

The grant began in October and will run for four years. The studies’ results will be shared nationally and internationally through journal articles, online trainings, conference presentations and social media.

"It will be incredible to see these students grow and succeed in the program, gain independence and become part of the new Virginia economy,” said Jim Rothrock, Commissioner of Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. “I know that the students’ lives will indeed be transformed while their new coworkers will be inspired by their talents.”