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Studying the Impact of Service-Learning on Career Development, Self-determination, and Social Skill Building for Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders


  • Adolescence (12-18 years)
  • Young Adulthood (19-25 years)


The link between employment and health and well-being is well-documented (e.g., WHO, 2007; Gallup, 2010, 2011; Zhan, Wang, Lui, & Shultz, 2009), and enabling people with disabilities to become employed has become a priority concern for practitioners, policy-makers, and advocates. However, limited post-secondary and employment outcomes of young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), plus a recent surge in incidence of ASD diagnosis, indicate a need for more effective school-to-work transition interventions. Service-Learning opportunities including those delivered through National Service programs such as AmeriCorps can support young adults with ASD to gain skills, explore careers, and develop networks that can lead to meaningful employment. The Institute for Community Inclusion (ICI) at the University of Massachusetts, Boston proposes a Service-Learning intervention project for 100 youth with ASD who represent underserved populations in three Florida counties. The purpose of the intervention is to explore the impact of service on career development, self-determination, and social skill building for youth with ASD. During the five-month Service-Learning intervention (called Project Impact) students with ASD will map their communities, identify a community problem, and develop and implement a subsequent Service-Learning project. ICI will partner with Florida Governor's Commission on Service and Volunteering (Volunteer Florida), and the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of South Florida. An Advisory Board with experts in Service-Learning, service inclusion, autism and transition will guide project activities. This project will address two of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau's six core outcome measures by "preparing youth and their families with the knowledge and skills necessary to promote self-determination, wellness, and successful navigation of the adult service system" and developing "community-based systems of service[in]response to the complexity and fragmentation of services" (USDHHS, 2008). The project will use a pretest-posttest control group design to investigate the impact of the intervention using field-tested, standardized scales pertaining to three variables: career development, self-determination, and social skills. Surveys will assess the students at baseline, and then again post-intervention across these three domains. The Year 1 control group will participate in a delayed intervention in the subsequent year. Qualitative interviews will add depth to the study by providing personal experiences and perceptions of the impact of the intervention. Results will be disseminated to transition professionals who support youth with ASD, disability employment support systems (such as Vocational Rehabilitation and Intellectual/Development Disabilities agencies), National Service professionals, and individuals with ASD and their families. Project staff will produce a diverse array of products geared towards multiple audiences, web-based resources, and at least three peer-reviewed journal articles.

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