NATIONAL INSTITUTE ON DEAFNESS AND OTHER COMMUNICATION DISORDERS
PI: DEBRA CHILDRESS
TERM: 12/17 – 05/19
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a life-long neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social communication deficits and repetitive behaviors and interests. With over 500,000 youth with ASD entering adulthood in the next decade, there is an urgent need for the development of cost-effective, accessible, and evidence-based interventions to support the transition to competitive employment. Like their typically developing peers, adolescents with ASD view employment as a critical step toward independence and self-sufficiency, as a way to contribute to society, and as a means to gain access to social relationships. While the increasing number of young adults with ASD want to obtain jobs, more than half of the of the 50,000 U.S. youth with ASD who turn 18 years of age each year are unemployed two years after leaving high school, with only approximately half finding employment eight years after high school. In order to become a successful member of the workforce, it is critical for an individual to not only be able to understand the social communication cues of others, but to be able to engage in context-appropriate social communication. For the majority of individuals with ASD, including ASD without intellectual disability (ASDwoID), social communication (pragmatic) skills are one of the most noticeable, stigmatizing, and chronic impairments. Examples of common social communication difficulties within the workplace include understanding and using nonverbal cues, asking and answering questions, starting and ending conversations, and using appropriate conversation pragmatics such as intonation, fluency, and topic maintenance. Even though Individuals with ASD have the desire and capability of exceling in competitive employment positions, they often fail to do so because of social communication limitations. Speech language pathologists (SLPs) routinely work as part of the team of professionals supporting individuals with ASD in elementary schools, but provide services less frequently to high school aged youth. In order to support secondary students with ASD in developing the social communication skills needed to obtain and maintain employment, SLPs need flexible and engaging tools. This SBIR Phase I project includes three specific aims: (1) develop the WC Decoder prototype; (2) conduct prototype usability and feasibility testing with adolescents/young adults with ASDwoID, speech language pathologists (including those from schools and private practices), and parents of adolescents/young adults with ASDwoID; and (3) prepare for Phase II full development. This SBIR project will directly address the need for innovative solutions to engage adolescents and young adults with ASDwoID in building foundational workplace social communication skills. Improved social communication skills will translate into significant benefits in the well-being of these youth, including obtaining and maintaining employment, achieving independence, financial security, self-sufficiency, and higher quality of life, and becoming active community members.