Just last month, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for six new applied autism research studies in 2017. These new grants, totaling $178,866, bring OAR’s total research funding to over $3.6 million since 2002. This is the first of six previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.
Four in every 10 youth with autism do not transition into a job between high school and their early twenties, an alarming number given that about 50,000 youth with autism reach their eighteenth birthday each year. These unemployed youth miss vital opportunities to explore job interests and gain skills needed to build a career and may continue experiencing employment challenges into adulthood. Vocational services can help those youth find and keep employment.
However, the level of support provided via vocational services varies according to the state they live in. Vocational rehabilitation is a major funder of community-based employment services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States. It is administered at the state level using a combination of federal and state funds and is operated at the community level through an extensive network of local offices and contracted community rehabilitation agencies. While federal law provides a legal framework for services and data reporting, states are granted a lot of autonomy in the administration and structure of their vocational rehabilitation programs.
The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014 requires states to engage in earlier, coordinated services — a critical development in the evolution of transition services. The federal government is currently reviewing state WIOA implementation plans that describe how states will use federal funding to design and deliver pre-employment transition services for students with disabilities. Their plans may lead to even more variability in state outcomes. It is important to be able to track the effects of this policy experiment as it unfolds across states.
In her OAR-funded research study, Anne Roux, MPH, MA, a research scientist in the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, Drexel University, plans to examine how variability in modifiable, state-level factors affects the outcomes of community-based public interventions like vocational rehabilitation. The one-year study, “Association of State-level Factors with Vocational Outcomes for Transition-age Youth with Autism” aims to identify the role of potentially modifiable factors, such as how states prioritize who receives services and use wait lists.
This initial study positions the Drexel Autism Institute to better understand how state implementation of WIOA will affect transition-age youth and their outcomes over the next few years. Developing techniques for establishing baseline statistics will also create a foundation for conducting repeated measures longitudinally once all state plans have been published. As Drexel researchers uncover what is working for youth in higher-performing states, they will be better able to inform effective employment practices and policies across the nation.
The long-term goal is to use the findings of this and future studies to inform national and state policies. In fact, this study is a first step in securing federal funding for an in-depth study of modifiable state-level correlates of vocational outcomes for youth with autism.
This study will be conducted in three phases over a one-year period.
In phase 1, researchers will identify 12 people with expertise in vocational rehabilitation services or who have used them to participate in a phone interview and two online surveys. The result will be a finalized set of agreed-upon state-level factors that may affect vocational services and outcomes. Examples of independent variables include:
- State vocational rehabilitation agency policy and administration, including, for example, expenditures on services, use of a financial needs test, wait-list length, and cost-sharing measures
- Autism-specific state policies and programs, including, for example, training for vocational rehabilitation staff on autism and designation of vocational rehabilitation counselors to specialize in autism
- State vocational rehabilitation client demographics
- State economic health and social demographics
In phase 2, the research team will collect data, including indicator information already available from pre-existing datasets. The team will interview state agency staff to collect data for indicators that do not have publicly available existing data.
In phase 3, the research team will analyze the data and prepare the findings using the state-level factors dataset to examine associations with vocational services and outcomes for people with autism.
The results of this study and those that build on it will be the first comprehensive database of state-level factors that may influence vocational outcomes. In addition, the research team will develop fact sheets, infographics, blogs, and in-depth reports for non-scientific audiences, including policymakers and state government decision makers.
The feasibility and national influence of collecting and analyzing state data has been demonstrated by projects like the State of the States in Developmental Disabilities, the Annie E Casey Foundation’s Kids Count series, and the National Survey of State Intellectual and Developmental Disability Agencies’ Day and Employment Services. Like those, this project has strong potential for influencing public policy by identifying which state-level factors, whether broad-scale or autism-specific, have an effect on vocational rehabilitation service outcomes.