Utah Neurodiversity Workforce Program (UNWP): A Higher Education Consortium to Deliver an Education-to-Employment System

Poster Presentation
Saturday, May 4, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
V. D'Astous1, C. Wright2, A. V. Kirby3, M. Diener2, S. D. Wright4 and N. Warren1, (1)FCS, University of Utah, SLC, UT, (2)University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, (3)University of Utah College of Health, Salt Lake City, UT, (4)Nursing, University of Utah, SLC, UT
Background: UNWP is a state-wide participant-oriented research (POR) program with active involvement by autists to create a comprehensive (unwp.utah.edu) education-to-employment pathway for neurodiverse individuals across Utah. The research is based on interviews with students with autism, parents, staff and faculty (N=62) in higher education indicating the need for specialized services for neurodiverse students. UNWP collaborates with high schools, community and industry partners and is funded by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to improve post secondary entry/completion and employment rates for individuals with ASD.

Objectives: To implement and evaluate the educational pathway including: 1) Increase in higher education success for neurodiverse students; 2) Inter-institutional collaboration of resources from post-secondary sites; and 3) improvement of employment outcomes between the employment needs of Utah’s growth industries and the untapped pool of skilled neurodiverse individuals.

Methods: Participant-oriented research involving autists in all areas of program development, implementation, and evaluation of the pathway model.

Results: Year 1 included awareness training to 200 higher education faculty/staff. The program received strong evaluations indicating importance of increasing awareness of neurodiversity. Embedding this model into existing student support services infrastructure of institutions of higher education and vocational-tech schools both ensures its success and enhances existing multi-collaborative relationships. For example, partnering with Student Career Services, we tapped into their industry partners to provide work-based learning opportunities based on individual student interests and talents. UNWP also increased their staff awareness of the strengths and challenges of this student population and how to best support them in achieving meaningful employment. Awareness trainings to 100 managers and employees in the tech industry and WBL experiences with students with ASD have initiated discussions with HR on how current hiring procedures are creating barriers for this population. Another benefit is that managers began to think more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to diversity based on evaluations. Seventeen students participated in technology industry work-based learning with 2 students successfully placed in competitive full-time positions. Year 2 is a replication of the model to 3 statewide higher education institutions and is currently underway. This presentation will be a discuss of lessons learned in this participant-oriented research model.

Conclusions: The strength in the development of the UNWP pathway model has been the inclusion of autists in all aspects of development and implementation. Autists are active participants in the development of all educational materials and trainings. This POR research and program development details the scope of the issue, highlighting the challenges and barriers for these students, the benefits that they could contribute to unfilled jobs in the tech industry, and demonstrates how this pathway can be scaled to address this problem state-wide. From this participant-oriented research we have created a state-wide, collaborative, inter-institutional network to meet industry needs. Based on the program development and successful academic, community and industry partnerships, UNWP offers a high rate of return-on-investment. Our pathway model has promising potential for replication across the states and in other international communities.

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