College to Career shows significant gains for autistic adults through PEERS® for Careers training program

April 2023

Despite having significant strengths in the workplace, autistic adults are far more likely to be unemployed than their neurotypical peers. Among those that are employed, autistic people earn lower wages, work fewer hours, and are less likely to receive benefits. Challenges with social communication emerges as a consistent barrier to employment, per reports by autistic adults, families, and employers alike. However, there has been shockingly little research devoted to the development of interventions and supports for autistic adults to promote competitive, integrated, and meaningful employment. From this need, UCLA College to Career was developed to address the challenges faced by autistic young adults in their transition from college to career.

In 2014, UCLA researchers Drs. Elizabeth Laugeson and Amanda Gulsrud met with College to Career’s founding supporters Chau Le and John Klemm to imagine how to better support autistic young adults embarking on their careers. A plan for an innovative set of initiatives was developed, focused on providing training and support undergraduate and graduate autistic students as they pursue and enter the workforce. As these initiatives come to fruition and are rigorously tested through research, the UCLA College to Career team hopes to disseminate the model broadly to break down barriers to autistic adults’ success. Our generous donors, including Northwestern Mutual and the Max Factor Family Foundation, and the tireless work of our Advisory Committee helped to jumpstart our work over several years, including completing a pilot study of the flagship College to Career program, PEERS® for Careers.

From left to right: College to Career Board of Advisors: Chris Carbado, Lily Chau, Amanda Gulsrud, Elizabeth Laugeson, Chau Le, John Klemm, Priscila Kasha, Walt Kasha, and Chantelle Eastman

In 2020, our team received funding from Autism Speaks to conduct a large, randomized controlled trial of the PEERS® for Careers training program. PEERS® for Careers is a 20-week employment-related social skills intervention that uses evidence-based teaching methods for autistic individuals to promote skills ranging from interviewing to workplace socializing. After providing PEERS® for Careers to over 100 adults across 4 group cohorts, the College to Career team is currently in the process of coding and analyzing data from the study. We are thrilled to report that the program benefitted autistic adults greatly, and in multiple ways. After participating, autistic adults showed significant gains in employment-related social skills knowledge, feelings of preparedness for employment, social responsiveness, and engagement in competitive integrated employment. The power of PEERS® for Careers was also amplified by additional individualized career coaching outside of group lessons.

The UCLA College to Career program is excited to continue to expand our work and grow new initiatives. We are seeking additional funding support to continue PEERS® for Careers, with added attention to employers. We have learned from our work so far that another critical component to bolstering the career success of autistic people is to partner with employers to create inclusive work environments. Over the course of two successful SPARK Campaigns in 2021 and 2022, we have raised over $40k to bolster these efforts. The funds from 2021 helped establish a dedicated College to Career Employment team, which through community outreach has developed a network of over 180 professional partners willing to provide informational interviews and/or employment opportunities to neurodivergent adults in our programs. In addition to providing continued support to the Employment team, our most recent SPARK campaign in July 22, with 25 donors, has enabled College to Career to develop a partnership with SourceAbled, an innovative employment platform that provides employers with comprehensive training and supports on how to attract, hire, onboard, support and retain talent with disabilities, including autism. Sourceabled then connects qualified job-seekers with employers who are well-versed in inclusive practices and able to foster a work culture of belonging.

In the coming year, the College to Career team plans to further this partnership with Sourceabled to conceptualize an employer-focused component to complement the PEERS® for Careers curriculum, and test whether this further improves employment outcomes for autistic adults. Private philanthropy continues to be imperative to our ability to expand the College to Career initiative and move forward in this work of promoting autistic success in employment. We are also constantly seeking new partnerships with organizations and business professionals looking for bright, motivated young adults to complete short-term projects or for employment. See our website here to learn more about how you can partner with UCLA College to Career to support autistic young adults in the successful transition from college to competitive, integrated employment.