Grant will allow UK researchers to help students with autism build a life after high school

Melanie and Steve Tyner-Wilson shared couch time with their son Jay Tyner-Wilson, middle. Jay, 21, has autism but is gaining volunteer vocational experience at an agricultural center.
Melanie and Steve Tyner-Wilson shared couch time with their son Jay Tyner-Wilson, middle. Jay, 21, has autism but is gaining volunteer vocational experience at an agricultural center. Herald-Leader

Jay Tyner-Wilson, a 21-year-old with autism, aged out of Fayette County Public Schools in May but has not yet landed his first paying job.

His mother, Melanie Tyner-Wilson, is concerned because she says many people with similar disabilities end up living in poverty.

The mother and son have been part of a focus group in a new three-year study at the University of Kentucky College of Education addressing the transition from school to work for people with autism spectrum disorder, marked by social communication impairment and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Tyner-Wilson said the challenge for her son, who has intellectual disabilities in addition to autism, "is getting that one person that might be willing to take a chance on somebody like my son and give him a job."

UK researchers are looking at what those students — and their families — can do to build a life after high school. The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded a $693,000 grant to UK College of Education professor Lisa Ruble and a cross-disciplinary team of co-investigators at UK and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Jay Tyner-Wilson, who now is volunteering at a Fayette County agricultural center, has limited verbal skills. He told the Herald-Leader he would be interested in working "on a horse farm ... or at a library."

Ruble hopes the funding will help reduce or eliminate the disconnect from services that often occurs when students with various degrees of autism complete school.

"We need to do a better job in understanding what the needs are and how to better respond to this larger number of students who are ... needing to be employed and are going to college and getting other services," Ruble said. "What we are trying to do is to maximize opportunities."

In the first year of the study, researchers are meeting with parents and others affected by the transition from school to the workplace.

They are talking to school administrators, policy makers, students with autism, classroom teachers, vocation rehabilitation counselors and job coaches. Researchers are trying to understand the issues involved with planning what's going to happen after school and then implementing the plans, Ruble said.

They are trying to determine a variety of things, such as what a good transition looks like, identifying barriers, and finding solutions to clear any hurdles.

As part of the research and a program called COMPASS, before disabled students leave a school district by graduating or turning 21, teachers and researchers construct goals for the students, and the researchers follow up with the teachers on implementation of the plans, Ruble said.

The study will further the research team's previous work with an intervention program for children 3 to 8 years old with autism. After the program is adapted for students nearing adulthood and preparing to complete high school, that intervention model will be tested in a randomized controlled study involving 32 participants.

"We're hoping they are going to have better outcomes with the results," said Ruble.

Melanie Tyner-Wilson said the "powerful thing" about the study was that it brings national attention to the issue "beyond just some parent like me saying, 'Oh, dear, my poor child.'

"It is exciting because when something gets researched, it gets attention and it counts. We have all kinds of people like my son Jay in the far reaches of this state, and we need to figure out how we are going to meet their needs and give them a quality of life."

As a participant in Ruble's study, Tyner-Wilson said she had told researchers what worked and what didn't work, and what could be better in the transition.

Tyner-Wilson said her son "has a lot of strengths and a lot of abilities" but would need "different layers of support" on the job.

Rachel Baker, associate director of special education for the Fayette school district, said job trainers, specially trained professionals and business owners, work with students who have autism and other disabilities.

The district arranged for Jay Tyner-Wilson to get volunteer vocational experience before he left, his mother said.

Wendy Wheeler-Mullins of Lexington is not participating in the UK study but she said she was glad to hear about it because her daughter Amelia, 22, has autism and is looking for a job.

"Amelia is good at typing data into the computer," said her mother. But, she said, "I have no idea" which workplace would be best.

For now, Amelia Mullins is volunteering at a technology nonprofit on a project digitizing picture books for young disabled children. She also is working with a state vocational rehabilitation counselor to find a job.

Patti Parsons said her son Jake Parsons, 22, worked through a private employment agency that contracts with the state to find a job at Walgreens stocking shelves.

While some students with varying degrees of autism have gone on to college and/or employment, there continue to be a significant number who struggle, Tyner-Wilson said.

Ruble, meanwhile, said every student in the study would help "raise the state and nation's capacity to provide services to children and adults with autism spectrum disorder."