Researchers at University of Kansas earn grant that would help adolescents with autism meet career goals

Philippe Bout 93w0xn4961g Unsplash

A student in a lecture hall. // Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

The University of Kansas recently announced that researcher Sheida Raley, Ph.D, was awarded a grant to test a new model of education instruction, which is designed to “enhance self-determination in community-based settings for adolescents with autism.”

Raley is both assistant professor of special education and assistant research professor at KU’s Center on Developmental Disabilities.

Sheida Raley

Sheida Raley, Ph.D. // Courtesy University of Kansas

The grant will allow her to conduct a pilot test of the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction-Autism, which has so far helped young people with disabilities solve problems related to developing and completing individual goals. Raley hasn’t yet had a chance to collaborate with adolescents with autism, specifically.

“We only have so much time during the school day, so we need to find a way to deliver these supports and interventions in settings outside of school,” Raley says. “It’s an opportune time to think about how we can use the SDLMI in a community setting to complement what is happening in schools to prepare students for the transition to adulthood, using a participatory research approach in partnership with autistic self-advocates.”

KUCDD received the $40,000 award from the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health, or AIR-P. The organization perpetuates an “interdisciplinary, multi-center research network for scientific collaboration and infrastructure to increase the life expectancy and quality of life for autistic individuals, particularly for underserved and vulnerable populations.”

Raley will partner with Ben Edwards, research aide at KUCDD and co-researcher on the project, and Karrie Shogren, professor of special education and director of KUCDD. Together, Raley and Edwards—with Shogren as project adviser—will try out the SDLMI in community-based settings with 20 adolescents ages 16-21.

“Program staff will work with adolescents, who will share their goals and plans with families, and all project activities will be guided by an Autistic Advisory Board,” reads a statement from KUCDD. Trained facilitators will help participants maintain postsecondary education and career objectives, plus focus on community building. They will also work towards sustaining positive physical and mental health practices.

At the end of 13 weeks, students will take stock of what they’ve learned.

The program aims to utilize feedback in a way that can be shared, documented, and improved upon—especially now, since COVID-19 has made it even more difficult for people with disabilities to find specialized education resources. According to right-to-education.org, these individuals face likelier instances of bullying and exclusion from classmates in school, which leads to lower rates of enrollment.

Moreover, says Raley, it’s important for the Self-Determined Learning Model to be tested in a community environment—not just in classrooms.

“We see disparities in the autistic community as a result of a lack of supports and services. Students aren’t graduating and joining integrated, competitive employment or joining their communities at the same rates as their peers,” she says. “It’s not because they’re not capable. It’s because they haven’t been getting the supports they need, and we need to find ways to provide these supports in innovative ways that complement what they are provided in school.”

Raley adds: “It’s all about working toward the overall goal of providing supports for autistic adolescents as they transition to adulthood based on what they want, and enabling community partners and schools to use a cohesive approach to promote self-determination and supporting students in chasing and achieving their education, health, and life goals.”

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