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Working to Employ Young Adults With Autism

When Anthony Capriglione was at Michigan State University (MSU), he had a difficult time adjusting to the new environment, working in groups, and communicating with peers and teachers due to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Consequently, he believed finding and holding a job in his major, computer science, would be very challenging.

“I knew I’d be expected to communicate frequently,” Capriglione says. “But I was afraid of embarrassing myself because I knew I didn’t have the soft skills to do my job.”

Then he met Connie Sung, who’s published two papers on the topic.

Sung, an associate professor of rehabilitation counseling at MSU’s College of Education, has developed the first empirical-based, work-related social skills training program for youth and young adults with ASD.

The Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training program, or ASSET, teaches young adults with ASD the skills needed to get and keep jobs as they transition from high school and college to adulthood. Every year approximately 50,000 of these “transition youth” become ready to enter the workplace and gain independence and self-esteem that comes from successfully holding down a job.

However, in the first study published in the journal Autism, Sung cites that 90% of those with disabilities lose their jobs due to the lack of soft skills. This is because most training focuses on teaching young children with ASD to interact with school peers and family. But that training doesn’t translate to the workplace, which is why Sung developed ASSET.

“Young adults with autism deserve the opportunity to be taught work-related social skills so they can be successful and live fulfilling, happy lives,” Sung says. “Helping [people with autism] become employed and independent becomes increasingly important since the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] reports the prevalence of ASD affects 1 in 59 people.”

ASSET training covers six core work-related soft skills: communication, attitude and enthusiasm, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.

Sung’s research proves the training helps considerably. In the second paper, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, participants had eight weeks of ASSET training. At the end of the period, the young adults with ASD showed significant improvements in social cognition, social function, and social confidence.

Sung also found that the participants’ confidence increased significantly while levels of anxiety and depression decreased, all of which can influence job success.

“ASSET gives [young adults with autism] a toolbox that boosts their confidence and significantly increases their chances of success,” Sung says. “They learn to focus on what they are good at, which helps their overall psychological wellness. [People with autism] have been underserved and neglected when it comes to training and support so I’m glad we’re finally working to help them.”

And Capriglione can attest to that. Since graduated from MSU, he has been working as an automation analyst at Ally Financial.

“Before going through Dr. Sung’s ASSET program, I’d just be silent,” Capriglione says. “Now I’m more social and professional in the work place. I act calmer and contribute more in conversations and in finding solutions to problems.”

With funding from the U.S. Department of Defense's Autism Research Program, Sung and her colleagues plan to expand ASSET.

“Based upon these positive improvements, we believe ASSET can help others with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those transitioning from the criminal justice system back into society,” Sung says. “Each of these groups can benefit from increased social confidence and psychological wellness, which will help them live more fulfilled and happy lives.”

Source: Michigan State University