Using Edtech to Improve Outcomes for Students with Autism

Using Edtech to Improve Outcomes for Students with Autism


Graduation season is here and thousands of students are preparing to enter the “real world.” The majority of them will spend this summer getting ready for college or starting new jobs. But for many with autism, the future doesn't feel so bright.

New data from the National Autism Indicators Report reveals that one-third of young adults (ages 18-25) with autism don’t have jobs or attend college. Only 19 percent of young adults with autism have ever lived independently from their parents, compared to 60 percent of their typically developing peers.

Clearly this is not what we want for our students. In many ways, our special education system – which is supposed to be preparing students with disabilities for the real world – has failed them.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

By equipping teachers and educators to better serve these students, we can make sure that many more students with disabilities have the opportunity to graduate from high school ready to continue their education or find a meaningful job. Educators have the ability to help students with disabilities succeed, like pediatric therapist Dmitry Libman and occupational therapist Kara O’Donnell do in New York’s Yonkers Public Schools.

Libman and O’Donnell work in the autism program at Roosevelt High School, focusing on teaching students the occupational skills needed to find a job or be accepted into a quality transition program after high school. To do this, they have established several different programs, both in school and in the community, to help their students learn valuable life skills. In school, students run the recycling program, work at the student store, manage a clothing and household distribution center for the local community homeless, and take care of the school garden. The high school has also partnered with several businesses in the community, including Dunkin’ Donuts, the Salvation Army, CVS, and the local pizzeria, where students with autism have opportunities to engage with community members and learn practical job skills.

Because of these in-school programs and community partnerships, students with autism at Roosevelt High School have become more confident and outgoing with adults and their peers. In return, fellow students, staff, and the community have embraced the students in the program. In the words of Roosevelt’s principal, Edward Dechent, “they’ve become like family.”

To build this remarkable program, Libman and O’Donnell have relied on an online curriculum and data collection program. They download printable lesson plans and task analyses for teaching students functional life skills, and use a suite of data collection tools to help them document student success. The end result? Each student will graduate with a portfolio that demonstrates their skill set and level of independence, which will make it easier for potential employers and programs to fully understand the capabilities of these students.

Unfortunately, not all educators have access to programs and tools to implement much-needed programs like this. Teachers need support to teach these skills and ensure that students exit high school with the greatest degree of independence possible. Schools invest heavily in curriculums for general education, and a significant focus is placed on preparing typically developing children for life after high school: Students with disabilities deserve that same intensive support. Educators need access to high-quality professional development that supports their acquisition of skills to effectively teach students with autism, and they need robust data systems to help them track and document student progress. A variety of resources and curricula are available to address the unique needs of young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD):

  • The Integrated Self Advocacy Curriculum (Paradiz, 2009) provides direct instruction on self-advocacy, enabling young adults with ASD to advocate for their own well-being.
  • Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Wong et al, 2014) lists 19 evidence-based intervention practices for youth ages 15-22. Six of of these practices specifically address vocational intervention. Educators should receive training on these interventions and school systems should ensure these practices are being utilized with fidelity.
  • Rethink is the curriculum and data collection utilized by Libman and O’Donnell at Roosevelt High School.
  • Project Search (Wehman et al, 2014) is an effective transition program for youth ASD that increases the likelihood that upon graduation young adults are engaged in competitive employment.

It’s time to bring more of these much-needed resources to our schools. Students with autism deserve access to a high-quality education and to well-prepared teachers that can meet their needs and prepare them for a bright future.

Patricia Wright, PhD, MPH, serves as the Vice President of Professional Services for Rethink, an education technology company dedicated to serving students with special needs. 

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