Transitioning to New Programs for Teens | Organization for Autism Research

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This article describes a pilot program focused on transitions that adolescents with autism spectrum disorders experience conducted by the Families for Effective Treatment of Autism of Washington. OAR’s President, Dr. Peter Gerhardt, served as a consultant to the project. While set in the Seattle area, it illustrates a programmatic and collaborative approach toward successfully teaching both transition and life skills that offers broader application.

It’s widely understood that the need for quality intensive early intervention remains crucial. That broad realization on the importance of early childhood needs, however, has not yet produced consensus or a continuum for effective interventions for older children, adolescents, or adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Thus, there is a continuing and—with the rising incidence of autism—growing need for services for adolescents with ASD. Last summer, the Families for Effective Autism Treatment (FEAT) of Washington offered a pilot program focused on transitions for adolescents with autism. It was well received by students and parents alike and produced some impressive results.

So when Brenne Schario, the director of FEAT of Washington, offered me the incredible opportunity to help run a pilot program for adolescents with autism that would be done in consultation with Dr. Peter Gerhardt, I jumped at the chance. Having worked in the successful FEAT summer academic program for the past three years, serving primary school aged children, I felt ready to run the organization’s first transitions program.

The pilot program was located in Seattle’s University District and ran three hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks during the summer of 2005. We had 17 students, ages 13-19, as well as three peer volunteers.

The main components of the program were:

  • Social Skills Training
  • Production Skills
  • Community Navigation Skills
  • Safety skills
  • Leisure skills

The students’ skills varied across the spectrum, ranging from those who needed one-on-one support throughout the day to others who were relatively high functioning autism and in need of fewer, immediate supports. As challenging as it seemed at first to have such a diverse range of abilities in the program, the variety of such individual abilities ultimately became one of its strengths.

On the program staff, we had two teachers, both Board Certified Behavior Analysts, seven assistants, and one part-time volunteer. All of our teachers and assistants had a background in applied behavior analysis (ABA), and most had experience providing instruction using precision teaching or fluency-based instruction.

It was important during the intake assessment with Dr. Gerhardt and me for us to hear not just the priorities of the families, but also to understand what was important to the students. By doing so, I believe we were able to create objectives that targeted both appropriate skills and skills that were important to the students.

The students were divided into two classrooms. Each student had objectives that fell under each of the above components that we established based on the interviews with the students and their parents, current Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and current reports from other professionals. Each student had an IEP with approximately nine objectives. All of the program’s objectives were written to not only incorporate technology that could be used in the future, but also to ensure that every objective we set applied across environments, people, and stimuli, in various environments. Our ultimate goal was to promote visible, meaningful change rather than simply meet the accuracy criteria.

Given these criteria the use of technology was crucial. We used Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), for example, to help achieve production and social skills objectives for tasks like keeping appointments, referencing a social script, or prompting to initiate conversation. We also used ATM cards, cell phones, video cameras and digital cameras with varying accommodations to target the needs of each student. The bustling University District provided us with many opportunities to use preferred places as environments for instruction and provide community-based instruction and street safety. Staying true to one of Seattle’s favorite pastimes, we had many opportunities to walk to Starbucks, order favorite drinks, and surf the Internet.

All data that was not a permanent product was graphed on a Standard Celeration Chart. By charting and analyzing the data, the staff was able to determine which interventions were working and, therefore, work more efficiently with the students. Out of a total of 154 objectives for all students, 92% were met!

Even though we did not have a measurement for qualities like self-confidence, happiness, or satisfaction with the program, 15 out of 17 parents anecdotally reported favorable increases in these areas.. Some parents reported that their children were now independently purchasing items (when they had previously needed support) and that their child said they wanted the FEAT school to be their school all the time. Other reports included that their child for the first time was able to see that there were others who had the same interests and that it was okay to explore those interests. Students also reported that they felt relief after finding out their peers shared their same difficulties.

In retrospect, I think a crucial piece of the program was that students had a voice in what they wanted to learn. One way we targeted this was by having the students complete journal entries each day, which included a summary of things they did, things they liked, and things they wanted to change. Most important, we then had that data to make those changes, when and where necessary.

The program’s success has led FEAT to extend it as a Saturday program during the school year. Without the dedicated staff, Dr. Gehardt’s specialized expertise and the vision of FEAT to continue providing quality ABA services for individuals with autism, this program would not have been possible. I am excited for the future and believe the success of FEAT’s Transition for Teens program is just the beginning of many great things to come as behavior analysts, educators, other related professionals, and dedicated parents continue to provide services for individuals with ASD.


Sara Pahl is a consultant for behavior analysis consulting firm Fabrizio/Moors, which is based in Seattle.


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