In November, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for seven new applied autism research studies in 2020. These new grants, totaling $275,000, bring OAR’s total research funding to more than $4 million since 2002. This is the second of seven previews to be featured in The OARacle this year. This study is funded by a grant from the Lisa Higgins Foundation.
Current estimates indicate 51 percent of adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who receive developmental disability services spend their days in adult day programs, which often provide vocational skill building and related resources. Those employment services are much needed. People with ASD have the lowest rate of employment compared to peers with other disabilities.
Improving the ability of day programs to provide better vocational support to adults with ASD may help improve those employment prospects. In order to do that, better training for day program staff is necessary as is access to evidence-based practices. In her OAR-funded study, Systematic Adaptation of Evidence-based Resources to Support Adults with ASD in Community Settings, Jessica Suhrheinrich, Ph.D., will evaluate outcomes associated with an established professional development model and evidence-based practice resources. The model and resources will be adapted to the specific needs of adults with ASD, their service providers, and adult day program organizations.
Dr. Suhrheinrich is an assistant professor in the Special Education Department at San Diego State University and an investigator with the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center.
Her study has three goals:
- Evaluate consumer, staff, and organizational characteristics and needs. A survey and focus groups will gather information from adults with ASD, their family members, day program administrators and staff, California Developmental Disability Services (DDS) representatives, and California Autism Professional Training and Information Network (CAPTAIN) members.
- Adapt National Professional Development Center for ASD (NPDC) assessment and training resources to support training implementation. The model and its resources are associated with increases in overall program quality, use, and fidelity of evidence-based practices and individual student progress. Resources include the Autism Focused Intervention Resources & Modules (AFIRM), which translate the 27 evidence-based practices identified by the NPDC into interactive online modules that are free and available to the public.
- Assess the effectiveness of the adapted model and resources in partnership with California Department of Developmental Disability Services and CAPTAIN.
The first step will be to recruit three agencies to participate, with requirements that the agency leader and three staff members, each of whom works with at least one individual with ASD, agree to participate in the training.
The research team will use surveys and focus groups to obtain a comprehensive understanding of which evidence-based practices most appropriately meet the needs of adults with ASD.
Survey items will include demographics and targeted questions about the service context and perceived needs and resources. The survey will be distributed to 10 agency leaders, 75 staff members, 10 adult consumers and their families, and five CAPTAIN members. Fifteen focus group participants will be recruited in partnership with CAPTAIN and Developmental Disability Services. This feedback will be used to adapt materials for a training model pilot.
In the training phase of the project, three staff members and nine clients from each participating agency will be randomly assigned to participate in a three-, four-, or five-week training with one agency assigned to each training. Participants will receive a three-hour interactive training workshop using the adapted training materials and resources. Additionally, staff will participate in weekly coaching appointments that involve observation, assessment of their implementation of evidence-based practices, and discussion with the participant to identify key areas of additional focus.
The intervention’s effectiveness will be measured for clients, service providers, and organizations. For clients, the research team will use a goal attainment scaling template to determine progress toward goals described in the client’s individual service plan, which includes vocational skills and/or adaptive skills and behavior. The goals measured will be developed in collaboration with agency staff before the training begins. Data will be collected before, during, and after the intervention and during follow up.
Assessments of service providers’ adherence to the evidence-based practices and the quality and amount of the practices as well as self-assessments and a survey will be used to determine the model’s training effectiveness as well as providers’ satisfaction with it.
To determine agency-level effectiveness, the team will use an intervention feasibility and fit assessment. Agency leaders will complete an implementation survey post-intervention to assess feasibility, satisfaction, and usability.
The outcomes of this study will contribute much needed evidence on effective training at the organizational and staff level for interventions that improve life outcomes for adults with ASD. The results of the study also have the potential to help policy makers and administrators make systemic changes to improve adult services.
By targeting the ability of adults with ASD to find employment and increase their independence and community inclusion, this study directly addresses critical challenges faced by adults with ASD. It also provides a professional development model and a resource base of evidence-based practices that can support the day program service system at a time when such support is sorely needed.