VCU Receives Federal Grant to Determine Best Practices to Facilitate Employment for Youth with Autism

Virginia Commonwealth University, together with the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services and Henrico County Public Schools, has received a $2.5 million grant to expand research in how to best help youth with autism gain and maintain employment upon graduation.

Young adults with autism are unemployed at a rate close to 90 percent, according to recent studies. Youth with autism present significant social and cognitive challenges, which have made competitive employment difficult after completion of high school.

The five-year grant, from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research-United States Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, will expand a current randomized controlled trial at a local hospital in Richmond, Va., where all students who participated in the project in the first three years were subsequently hired as employees by that hospital. The new grant will continue that research as well as fund research sites in two additional community hospitals in northern and southeastern Virginia. The VCU team is focused on employment issues and improving social and cognitive behavior of youth with autism.

“We have learned from our work over the past three years that 88 percent of the youth with autism coming through the nine-month internship have obtained competitive employment,” said Paul Wehman, Ph.D., principal investigator and professor in the VCU Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). Wehman is also director of the VCU Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.

“What we hope to learn from this study is whether these findings can be expanded to a larger sample of youth with autism and also whether nine-month internships can positively improve social communication and cognitive behaviors,” he said.

“As our experience in Virginia with Project SEARCH shows, these internship programs give young people invaluable opportunities to gain independence and learn job skills in a supportive environment. They transform lives in a positive way,” said Jim Rothrock, Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services Commissioner. Project SEARCH is a nationwide, one-year, high school transition program that provides skills training and work experience for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, ages 18 to 22.

“Through our partnership with VCU on this grant, we expect to learn more about the services and supports that youth with autism may need to become successfully employed in their communities,” said Rothrock.

According to Wehman, the findings will help drive new knowledge for the development of activities that will target students, employers, educators, parents, and medical and rehabilitation experts.

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see