$3.5 Million Gift Supporting Autism Institute’s Programs for Transition to Adulthood

Logo for the Life Course Outcomes program, whose report generated interest for the new Transition Pathways program.
The donation for the new Transition Pathways program came from interest sparked by a report generated by the Life Course Outcomes program.

A $3.5 million grant donated anonymously will allow for the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University to become an innovation incubator for pilot programs to prevent young adults on the spectrum from falling through the cracks after high school.

Named “Transition Pathways,” the demonstration programs will help high school seniors and recent graduates on the cusp of living or working independently. Many of these young adults run the risk of not being able to recover after they fall off the “services cliff,” a term used to describe what happens when a person ages out of high school support programs.

“Transition Pathways will demonstrate how a university can act as an incubator for innovative programs or services,” said Peter Doehring, PhD, associate research professor in the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, who has co-led the development of the new initiative, which is slated to launch in September. “Programs like these would have the advantage of giving participants access to all the university has to offer and, through partnership with university-based researchers and facilitate the seamless collection and integration of data in order to carefully evaluate effectiveness”.

According to the National Autism Indicators Report, produced last year by the Life Course Outcomes Research Program at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, under the direction of Paul Shattuck, PhD, just 36 percent of young adults diagnosed with autism ever attend college or vocational-technical schools. Moreover, just 58 percent ever have a paying job.

“For years, my work has documented the bleak prospects of autistic young people after they leave high school. A major priority when I brought my research to Drexel two years ago was to begin building an evidence base about how we can promote better outcomes,” Shattuck said. “Dr. Doehring is a renowned thinker and leader in the realm of autism services, and he brings a wealth of experience to this work and is the perfect person to move things forward.”

Support for Transition Pathways came about after Shattuck secured earlier funding to prepare a proposal for positioning the University to incubate and disseminate innovative approaches for helping the growing population of young adults on the spectrum.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to see the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is inspiring generous and visionary donors,” said Drexel University President John A. Fry. “The Institute is the standard-bearer for Drexel’s commitment to using a public health approach to addressing autism, but its outstanding work wouldn’t be possible without significant financial support from those who share that commitment.”

Transition Pathways draws on the latest thinking about evidence-based practices and state and national models for integrating services, training, research, and policy. There will be two “pathways” — a Work Pathway and a College Pathway.

The Work Pathway will provide internship opportunities leading to competitive employment, while the College Pathway will add opportunities to audit Drexel courses. Core components of both pathways include training in social and self-help skills, and potential participation in the University’s trademark co-op system. Both programs are designed to be time-limited, providing intense support over a period of two years in order to help youth maximize their potential for independence thereafter

Up to 16 participants will be involved in the programs in its first year. Most will be seniors set to graduate from schools in the Philadelphia area in spring 2017. As such, the plan is to have school teachers and other professionals from Community Integrated Services work with them at Drexel as a part of the programs.

”Transitions Pathways is innovative in so many ways — not the least of which is the opportunity it provides to integrate research with service delivery in order to generate evidence about what really helps this population most at this critically important, but under-studied, time of life,” said Craig Newschaffer, PhD, director of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute and professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health.

While some programs exist to help adults on the spectrum make the transition into living independently, they are not widespread or applicable to large populations, and do not always engage community agencies as full partners. Transition Pathways aims to develop and pilot test program models that have evidence of effectiveness and are able to be implemented in diverse communities and settings.

“Clinical research has begun to identify specific practices that are effective at addressing the needs of adults on the autism spectrum, but only for one adult at a time,” Doehring said. “We need to draw on a public health approach to integrate these practices into more comprehensive programs that are affordable, sustainable and scalable. We need programs that can deliver benefits to an entire population of adults, and this gift will help us demonstrate how to do that here at Drexel.”