Connie Sung, associate professor of rehabilitation counseling at the College of Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, has developed the first empirical-based, work-related social skills training program for youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The program is designed to help these individuals gain skills needed to land and keep jobs.
The Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training program (ASSET) works with young adults as they move from high school and college to the workplace. Every year, about 50,000 such youth become ready to enter the workplace.
In Sung’s first study, however, which was published in the journal Autism, she cites that 90 percent of those with disabilities lose their jobs due to a lack of soft skills.
Most training focuses on teaching children with ASD to interact with school peers and family. That training does not translate to the workplace. ASSET covers six of these soft skills: communication, attitude and enthusiasm, teamwork, networking, problem solving and critical thinking, and professionalism.
“Young adults with autism deserve the opportunity to be taught work-related social skills so they can be successful and live fulfilling, happy lives,” says Sung. “Helping these people become employed and independent becomes increasingly important, since the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reports the prevalence of ASD affects 1 in 59 people.”
Sung’s research proves that soft training helps. The second paper, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, highlights the effect of eight weeks of the training. Young adults who participated showed improvements in social cognition, social function, and social confidence.
Participants’ confidence also increased, and levels of anxiety and depression decreased, which can influence job success.
“ASSET gives these young adults a toolbox that boosts their confidence and significantly increases their chances of success,” says Sung. “They learn to focus on what they are good at, which helps their overall psychological wellness. These people have been underserved and neglected when it comes to training and support, so I’m glad we’re finally working to help them.”
Anthony Capriglione has ASD and participated in the study.
“Before going through Dr. Sung’s ASSET program, I’d just be silent,” he says. “Now, I’m more social and professional in the workplace. I act calmer and contribute more in conversations and in finding solutions to problems.”
Funding from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Autism Research Program will allow Sung to expand ASSET.
“Based upon these positive improvements, we believe ASSET can help others with intellectual and developmental disabilities and those transitioning from the criminal justice system back into society,” she says. “Each of these groups can benefit from increased social confidence and psychological wellness, which will help them live more fulfilled and happy lives.”