Wehman continues research, lectures on autism services

Virginia Commonwealth University professor Paul Wehman, Ph.D., spent March 27 and 28 at Princeton University where he lectured, met with a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice and unofficially advised script consultants for the TV show “Parenthood.”

Wehman, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, is director of the VCU Autism Center for Excellence. He has joint appointments in the Department of Rehabilitation Counseling, part of the School of Allied Health Professions, and the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy, part of the School of Education. He was at Princeton as a guest lecturer, awardee and panel member for the Eden Autism Services Princeton Lecture Series.

He said the lecture series and those in attendance were encouraging.

“There are some very smart people trying to reach the masses in this country,” Wehman said. “The enthusiasm and the interest in autism and autism services is growing, and that is great news.”

A prime example is “Parenthood,” which features a young character named Max who lives with autism.

“A TV show like this that depicts autism correctly can hit millions of people,” said Wehman.

Wehman is an expert in autism services. He pioneered supported employment for those with intellectual disabilities at VCU in the 1980s, and he has published more than 200 articles and authored or edited more than 40 books, primarily on employment and transition for those with autism, severe disabilities and traumatic brain injury.

He said increased awareness of – and attention to – autism is encouraging because the public is beginning to see what he has seen in more than 20 years of research, which is that the population living with autism is unique, talented and able to meaningfully contribute to society.

Some of his latest research to illustrate these facts began in 2009 when he applied a Project SEARCH model specifically to those living with autism. Project SEARCH is a one-year high school transition program that provides skills training and work experience for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, ages 18 to 22.

Student interns report to a host hospital where they spend the majority of their day in an unpaid internship matched to their skills and interests. The school system, the hospital and VCU provide on-site job coaches and training in areas such as ambulatory surgery, coronary care and materials management.

By 2012, 24 high school students had completed the internship. Eighty-eight percent found employment after graduation, which is a stark contrast to national numbers suggesting 86 percent of students with autism graduate high school unemployed.

The interns who were hired now average 22 to 23 hours of work per week and earn and average of $9.22 per hour.

Wehman said his most valuable partner in implementing this research and pushing for the model to become a standard of practice in Virginia has been the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (DARS).

“And that all starts with VCU grad and DARS commissioner James Rothrock,” Wehman said. “His impetus has been critical in making autism employment a reality in the state.”

While Wehman’s research suggests those living with autism can hold meaningful employment, working with the population does come with challenges.

“These kids and youth are extremely difficult to work with,” he said. “They’re very exciting to work with and they have really unique personalities – a lot of them are extremely smart – but it’s very hard for us who do not have autism to understand how to draw their strengths and their gifts out.

“But when we are successful you see these incredible gifts coming out and their personalities are alive and different,” Wehman said.

Interns’ coworkers have reported changes in the way they interact with patients, families and one another based on their time spent with the interns, Wehman said.

He has also seen students with autism – some who exhibited the worst behavioral problems prior to going to work – become increasingly independent and social as they are employed.

Those are results worth reporting to the masses.


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