Examining the Link Between School Practices and Adult Outcomes | Organization for Autism Research

Research Preview

In October, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for eight new applied autism research studies in 2019. These new grants, totaling $228,036, bring OAR’s total research funding to over $3.7 million since 2002. This is the sixth of eight previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.

School-related issues, from delays in autism diagnosis to social isolation at school, can affect young people with autism into adulthood. Yet rarely has the link between school-based practices or attitudes and adult outcomes for those who went through school with an autism label been explored.

The focus of this OAR-funded one-year qualitative study is to identify school system-related issues affecting the long-term success of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as described by young adults on the autism spectrum, their parents, and educators. Co-principal investigators Connie Anderson, Ph.D., director, Post-baccalaureate Certificate Program in Autism Studies, and Caroline McNicholas, assistant professor of health science, both at Towson University, anticipate that their findings will illuminate both successful school-based practices and urgent problems affecting students with ASD. The findings will not only suggest avenues for future research, they will also empower individuals with ASD, parents, and educators to advocate for change.

In a previous study, Dr. Anderson and Dr. McNicholas conducted in-depth interviews with 35 parents of 36 young adult children on the spectrum to better understand what happens as young adults with ASD leave high school and begin their adult lives. An additional and unanticipated topic emerged from these interviews: the role school systems play in long-term outcomes of young adults on the autism spectrum.

They will use the information they gathered about the role of schools from parents and young adults in those interviews and interview 15 educators for this study. To take part, a person will need to be a general educator, special educator, or guidance counselor who has worked with a student on the autism spectrum during the past five years.

Typical questions for this group will be:

  • What has it been like for you to teach children, teens, or young adults on the autism spectrum?
  • What has been rewarding?
  • What has been a challenge?
  • What has gone very well for your students on the autism spectrum at school?
  • What are you proud of?
  • What has not gone as well?
  • What has contributed to good vs. poor experiences or outcomes in the short and long term?

Project data will consist of answers to a brief pre-interview questionnaire and interview transcripts that do not identify the participant. The questionnaire will provide information regarding a participant’s role in the schools, grade level(s) taught, years working with students with ASD, and other relevant details.

The team will add in the school-focused young adult and parent material from earlier interviews in order to analyze all of the interview data together. Interview analysis will allow the research team to identify common themes, such as “lacks administrator support” or “inadequate resources,” for example.

To ensure trustworthiness, the research team will ask participants to review the transcript of their interview to verify that it matches what they believe they said and meant. They will also “triangulate” the data. The aim here is to confirm that more than one group is reporting an issue. For example, if all groups report issues with delays in obtaining an ASD diagnosis and then receiving appropriate supports at school, credibility is enhanced.

Though no universal claims about young adults with ASD, their families, and teachers can be made based on qualitative data from a certain locale, the study will provide informative details about the context in which findings were discovered to help other researchers gauge to what extent they may apply in another setting.

Outcome Recommendations

The researchers hope that their findings will encourage families and educators alike to take a long-range view, empowering them to heighten the importance of current practices by being able to link them to adult outcomes.

They plan to share the study findings in a family-friendly and useable way with the autism community, educators, school administrators, and those responsible for school policy.

There is a stark lack of knowledge about autism-focused practices and attitudes in schools, let alone the consequences of these as students with ASD grow, graduate, and go on to live their adult lives. It is essential to determine if there are key school system-based issues associated with positive or negative outcomes for students with ASD and their families not just in the short term, but also in the long term, for future research as well as advocacy.

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