KU researcher to test community-based method to help adolescents with autism take lead in education, careers

Research has shown that when students with disabilities shape their own learning, career and life goals, they attain higher levels of achievement than when following routine curriculum and plans. A University of Kansas researcher has earned a grant to test an evidenced-based intervention designed to enhance self-determination in community-based settings for adolescents with autism to improve education, community participation, and physical and mental health outcomes.

Sheida RaleySheida RaleySheida Raley, assistant professor of special education and assistant research professor at KU’s Center on Developmental Disabilities, has earned an early career research award to conduct a pilot test of the Self-Determined Learning Model of Instruction-Autism. The SDLMI has shown great success in supporting young people with disabilities to set goals and problem-solve as they work toward their goals. However, the majority of work has been performed in schools and not necessarily specifically in partnership with adolescent with autism.

“We only have so much time during the school day, so we need to find a way to deliver these supports and interventions in settings outside of school,” Raley said. “It’s an opportune time to think about how we can use the SDLMI in a community setting to complement what is happening in schools to prepare students for the transition to adulthood, using a participatory research approach in partnership with autistic self-advocates.”

The Autism Intervention Research on Physical Health, or AIR-P network, provided the $40,000 award to the KUCDD, a collaborating research entity. Raley will partner with Ben Edwards, a research aide at KUCDD and co-researcher on the project, in piloting and testing the SDLMI-Autism intervention in community-based settings with 20 adolescents ages 16-21. Trained facilitators of SDLMI will work with youths near the Lawrence and Edwards campuses to set goals for their postsecondary education, careers, community participation, and physical and mental health, then support them in working toward those goals. The project is unique in that it will be guided by community partners with lived experience, be conducted outside of school settings and also measure physical and mental health outcomes.

Participants will take part in pre-testing, then engage in 90-minute sessions for 13 weeks. At the conclusion, the students will evaluate their knowledge and achievement again as a result of the SDLMI-Autism intervention. Participants will receive opportunities and supports to build self-determination and executive processes as well as enhance their physical and mental health. Program staff will work with adolescents, who will share their goals and plans with families, and all project activities will be guided by an Autistic Advisory Board. Among the goals is to gather feedback from participants and the board on the feasibility and usability of the SDLMI-Autism intervention, specifically for adolescents with autism, and to document what improvements should be made to enable future scaling up. Researchers will also develop a SDLMI-Autism Facilitator’s Guide for community partners who could use the intervention after the pilot project.

Data gathered on self-determination, executive abilities, and physical and mental health from autistic adolescents and their families and recommendations on improvements from the board will also support application for funding for a larger study of the SDLMI-Autism, all aligned with the goal of making it widely available.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which kept untold numbers of young people from taking part in a traditional school day or in the community, made timing of the SDLMI-Autism even more pressing. Students with autism saw challenges of transitioning from secondary education and in living healthy lives, such as maintaining physical activity and social opportunities.

“We see disparities in the autistic community as a result of a lack of supports and services. Students aren’t graduating and joining integrated, competitive employment or joining their communities at the same rates as their peers,” Raley said. “It’s not because they’re not capable. It’s because they haven’t been getting the supports they need, and we need to find ways to provide these supports in innovative ways that complement what they are provided in school.”

In addition to the board members and Edwards, who has experience in community-based autism research, Raley will work with project mentor Karrie Shogren, professor of special education and director of KUCDD, as project adviser. Shogren has led numerous projects examining the use of the SDLMI in school and community contexts, and she has published extensive research on the benefits of promoting self-determination and inclusive education.
“It’s all about working toward the overall goal of providing supports for autistic adolescents as they transition to adulthood based on what they want, and enabling community partners and schools to use a cohesive approach to promote self-determination and supporting students in chasing and achieving their education, health and life goals,” Raley said.