A pilot study led by researchers at the University of Maine could lead to improved services for college students with autism.
The study investigated the use of a social skills curriculum for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) making the transition from high school to college. Although results were limited, the project included a partnership with the Maine Department of Labor’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR) that may serve as a model for how state vocational rehab agencies and higher education institutions can work together to support college students on the autism spectrum.
The partnership and pilot study are detailed in a new journal article by University of Maine special education faculty members Sarah Howorth, Deborah Rooks-Ellis and Joshua Taylor, along with Alan Cobo-Lewis, associate professor of psychology and director of UMaine’s Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies (CCIDS), and Christine Moody from the Tarjan Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the UCLA PEERS Clinic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 44 children in the United States have been diagnosed with ASD, a developmental disability that affects behavior, communication, interaction and learning. Approximately 49,000 students with ASD graduate from high school in the U.S. every year, and about 16,000 of them go on to college.
“Currently, traditional accommodations offered by post-secondary institutions (e.g., extended time on tests and note-takers) do not adequately address the needs of college students on the spectrum,” the researchers note.
For instance, few supports are offered for the social communication challenges faced by college students with autism.
PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) is a social skills treatment for children and young adults with ASD developed by Elizabeth Laugeson at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. It includes training and practice sessions on communication and interpersonal skills, such as how to start, maintain and exit conversations. Research has shown it to be an effective intervention for those on the spectrum, or with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety, depression and other social-emotional health conditions.
Previous research on PEERS has focused on its use in either school-based or clinical psychiatric settings. UMaine’s study is the first time the program has been implemented by a state vocational rehab agency as pre-college or pre-employment transition support.
The collaboration between UMaine researchers and the state began in 2019, with the Step Up to College program. The five-week summer program led by the DVR is designed to help high school juniors and seniors on the spectrum who are interested in attending college gain skills and experience associated with postsecondary education success. In 2019, Howorth and Rooks-Ellis led an abbreviated and adapted version of PEERS for Step Up participants. The sessions focused on conversational skills, specifically starting conversations, entering group conversations and exiting group conversations.
“These skills were chosen as they are the foundation for a variety of social interactions and relationships,” the researchers write.
The pilot study indicated that participants’ conversational skills did improve as a result of the PEERS seminars. But due to the small number of students in the 2019 Step Up program and the abbreviated and adapted nature of the PEERS sessions, a functional relation was not established demonstrating the effect of the treatment. The authors say further study is needed.
The biggest implication of the pilot study was the partnership between UMaine and the DVR.
“This study, and its investigation of the PEERS curriculum as an educational transition service, adds new information on how PEERS may be used,” the research team says. “Indeed, previous research has noted that college students with ASD have indicated that they need more specific university support and training in interpersonal skills.”
In 2020, the Step Up program, including the PEERS classes, moved to a virtual format due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Howorth collaborated with Maine DVR director Libby Stone-Sterling and UMaine CCIDS staff to create an online friendship bootcamp as part of the 2020 and 2021 Step Up programs. Howorth and Stone-Sterling recently presented on a research project looking at delivery of the PEERS curriculum via telehealth at the Council for Exceptional Children Division on Career Development and Transition conference in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“The pilot study helped inform the telehealth PEERS groups that we provided when the Step Up program went virtual due to the pandemic,” says Howorth. “It was viewed as a critical component to college success for individuals on the autism spectrum.”
“The research also showed everyone involved with preemployment training, college support services and Step Up that there is a critical need to support the social communication needs of these students, as challenges in these areas are a defining feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder,” she adds.
The researchers hope to continue their investigation of in-person PEERS classes as part of the 2022 Step Up summer program to be held on the UMaine campus.
The pilot study was published in the journal Career Development and Transition for Exceptional Individuals, and is available online. It was funded by the Maine DVR through grants from the U.S. Department of Education and the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council, with additional funding from UMaine via U.S. Administration for Community Living grants.