Evaluating the Value of a Toastmasters Program | Organization for Autism Research

Research Preview

In November, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for five applied autism research studies in 2022. These new grants, totaling $196,272, bring OAR’s total research funding to more than $4.4 million since 2002. This article is the first of five previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.

Many young people on the autism spectrum need services and support to assist them in achieving their goals and engaging meaningfully in their communities. Once autistic youth finish their primary education, however, support programs often become inaccessible. Given the low availability of adequate supports, the transition to adulthood can be a particularly vulnerable period for this population. Indeed, relative to their peers, young, autistic adults have significantly lower rates of postsecondary participation, employment, and independence as well as increased social isolation. Research efforts are needed to identify accessible and effective programs for these individuals.

A two-year OAR-funded study, Amplifying Autistic Voices: Investigating the Impact of a Community-Based Public Speaking Program, seeks to do just that. Co-investigators Sasha Zeedyk, Ph.D., assistant professor of child and adolescent studies, California State University, Fullerton, and Yasamin Bolourian, Ph.D., post-doctoral researcher, University of California Riverside Graduate School of Education, will investigate the feasibility of using the Toastmasters Speechcraft curriculum – a community-based, small-group public speaking program  – as a social skills intervention for young, autistic adults.

In their proposal, the researchers assert that social skills interventions for adults have some serious drawbacks, including that the autistic adults have not been represented in program creation and implementation, with feedback coming primarily from caregivers. Additionally, they note that those interventions teach autistic people how to interact in neurotypical ways, leading them to feel they must camouflage in order to navigate social interactions, which can be stressful for many.

This study takes a participatory approach in order to ensure that young, autistic adults participate not just as participants but as partners, along with their allies, in the creation and implementation of the intervention.

The study will explore the benefits of the Toastmasters program, which promotes social communication skills and self-efficacy among other transferrable skills in a “no-pressure, supportive” environment. With a learn-by-doing model, the goal of Toastmasters is to help members develop skills in listening, giving feedback, decision-making, delegating, and mentoring.

To understand the impact of Toastmasters as a social skills intervention, the study has three goals:

  1. Conduct interviews and take field notes to obtain a comprehensive understanding of whether, for whom, and under what circumstances Toastmasters is a meaningful community-based program for autistic participants
  2. Adapt the Speechcraft curriculum (see below) in collaboration with autistic and community partners, incorporating the findings on feasibility.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of the adapted Toastmasters Speechcraft curriculum for autistic people.

 

Methodology

In 2012, Judi Uttal organized the Orange County (Calif.) Asperger’s Support Group (OCASG) Toastmasters Gavel Club exclusively for autistic adults. Gavel Clubs provide the Toastmasters experience to groups that may be ineligible for regular membership due to age, inability to pay dues, or other circumstances. Drs. Zeedyk and Bolourian will examine first-person perceptions and participants’ observations in order to evaluate Toastmasters’ effectiveness as  a worthwhile program for the target group.

In addition to Drs. Zeedyk and Bolourian and Uttal, the research team will include four members of the Gavel Club as well as Dr. Christina Nicolaidis, a participatory research expert.

The club uses the Toastmasters Speechcraft educational curriculum to facilitate learning opportunities for novice members in the areas of speaking, listening, thinking, and leadership. Members participate in weekly meetings through assigned roles, such as the general evaluator and the grammarian, and responsibilities, like supervising the time and commenting on language usage.

Study Phase I: In this phase, the research team will obtain a comprehensive understanding of whether and under what circumstances Toastmasters is a meaningful community-based program for autistic participants. The researchers will:

  • Observe monthly OCASG Gavel Club meetings.
  • Interview 20 active club members and 20 coaches/caregivers who have worked closely with members during the program.
  • Analyze their observation notes and the interviews in order to identify potential adaptations to the Speechcraft curriculum.

Study Phase II: This phase includes adapting the curriculum and running the pilot study. Adaptations may include more explicit instruction on particular skills, changes to format and length of sessions, and improving accessibility of materials. Club members will participate in making decisions about how to adapt the curriculum.

The researchers will recruit 24 adults, ages 18 to 34, 12 with experience with Toastmasters and 12 new to the program, to take part in the pilot study. The participants will decide how much they want coaches and caregivers to be involved in program support and be asked to give permission for the research team to collect outcome measures from their caregivers.

The pilot study will consist of two separate eight-week programs, with one group as the waitlist control group participating after the first group to determine program effectiveness. Participants will learn how to organize and present ideas logically, listen carefully to others’ ideas, participate in and lead group discussions, and offer feedback to help others improve their skills. Uttal will facilitate the sessions.

The research team will collect data for each group at three points, before the program, immediately after the program, and finally eight weeks after the program.

 

Evaluation

The researchers will use both qualitative and quantitative data to evaluate the efficacy of the Toastmasters intervention. In addition to a demographic survey, specific measures to assess program effectiveness will include standardized questionnaires of social reciprocity, adaptive skills and behaviors, social skills, loneliness, camouflaging behaviors, relationship difficulties, and self-efficacy. A questionnaire to measure leadership skills will be adapted for use with autistic adults.

Participants will also complete an exit interview so the research team can better understand issues of feasibility and satisfaction with participation, learning experiences, and group rapport. In addition, caregivers will report on relevant outcomes, such as social functioning, before and after the program.

 

Outcome Recommendations

This study will provide an understanding of how well the Toastmasters program works for use with autistic adults and the benefits it provides them. Additionally, the project will produce a curriculum specifically tailored to the needs of the autism community.

The investigators expect the study to provide preliminary evidence of the effectiveness of the curriculum to build targeted social skills while limiting the need for camouflaging behaviors. Specifically, possible benefits of participation include increased communication skills, leadership skills, awareness, self-confidence, and socialization.

As the researchers wrote in their proposal, using the Toastmasters model for autistic individuals holds promise for use across communities. It is an inclusive model that teaches skills that can be used in other settings, like school and the workplace.


Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.


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