When offered intensive, specialized training, a new study finds that young people with autism — even those with challenging behaviors — can be highly successful on the job.

Researchers followed a group of high school students, some of whom received traditional special education offerings while others were provided with specialized training and internships through a program called “Project SEARCH with Autism Supports.”

Of the young people who got the extra job training, 87 percent found work in competitive employment situations after graduation compared to just 6 percent in the control group, researchers reported the July issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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“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 Wehman of Virginia Commonwealth University who was the study’s principal investigator.

The findings are particularly significant, Wehman said, since previous research has found that those with autism are employed at even lower rates than others with disabilities.

For the study, researchers looked at 40 high school students ages 18 to 21 with autism, Asperger’s syndrome or pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified. Two-dozen students were assigned to participate in Project SEARCH with Autism Supports while the remaining 16 made up a control group.

Researchers customized Project SEARCH — a nine-month internship program for those with developmental disabilities during their last year of high school — to meet the specific needs of young people with autism. They incorporated applied behavior analysis and relied on an interdisciplinary support team including teachers, employment specialists, a positive behavior support facilitator and other experts.

Students in the program did internships at two different hospitals working in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units, diabetic wellness units and the hospital pharmacy, among other areas. All of the work was high-level, but involved repetitive tasks requiring attention to detail, the researchers said.

Participants were also taught basic employment-related skills like how to get to and from work using public transportation, how to ask for help and how to accept constructive criticism from a supervisor.

Individuals in the program needed less supports as they became more familiar with their jobs, the study found, even in cases where students started out with significant behavioral challenges. What’s more, after completing Project SEARCH, 21 students were able to get jobs in competitive employment situations earning 24 percent more than minimum wage. Meanwhile, just one of the individuals in the control group was employed after graduation, the study found.

“For far too long, youth with ASD have been left out of that elated feeling that adults have when they get their first real (job),” said Carol Schall of Virginia Commonwealth University and the Virginia Autism Resource Center who worked on the research. “Through this study, we were able to demonstrate that youth with ASD can be successful employees.”

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