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Initiatives for adults on the autism spectrum: An example of advocacy at the SCSD

The M.Sc.A program at the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders (SCSD) is currently in the process of shifting towards a competency-based approach to clinical training. The curriculum is now framed to target seven specific roles that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) should fill in their practice. That is, being an SLP means being a clinician, a communicator, a collaborator, an advocate, a scholar, a manager and a professional, all at the same time. As students, we often think of our clinician role as being the most important one, or at least the one we are most interested in developing. However, as we learn over the course of our training, all roles are equally important to provide optimal services and support to our clients. In the present newsletter, we explore an exciting example of our role as advocates at the SCSD in the Psychology of Pragmatics laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Aparna Nadig.

The project: The McGill transition support program

Adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often face challenges when it comes to employment, independence, and social participation. Indeed, at the end of high school, young adults with ASD are often faced with an abrupt stop of services, particularly if they do not have an intellectual disability. Even though they have much potential, becoming an independent adult thus is often a challenge. Working with Dr. Tara Flannagan from the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill, Dr. Nadig co-created a program to provide support to young adults with ASD in three areas: social communication, self-determination, and working with others. Contrary to many services that involve parents of people with ASD and/or focus on pre-determined problem areas, this particular program first asked the young adults with ASD themselves what their needs were, and selected curriculum accordingly. During the Transition Support Program, participants attended weekly group sessions focused on different issues they were facing, from perspective taking to conflict resolution. After ten weeks, participants reported improvement in quality of life and self-determination, as well as in the skills targeting during small-group sessions. An article reporting a randomized controlled trial of this service can be found here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/aur.2027

Following the success of the Transition Support Program, Dr. Nadig and her team are currently exploring the possibility of implementing this small-group service in the community.

Employment meeting of Dr. Nadig's project

The need for advocacy

Helping young adults with ASD acquire skills has proven to be effective and helpful, but the difficulties they face with respect to employment and independence also stem from society and a broader lack of acceptance. In their current project funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Dr. Nadig, along with a team of researchers and community collaborators, are tackling the issue of under-employment of adults with ASD from the other side. “Traditionally, emphasis in the literature has been on improving job readiness skills of the individual with ASD,” says Dr. Nadig, “but in this project we want to focus on society and on the environment surrounding people with ASD, because there will not be more jobs until employers are ready to make more jobs.” To do so, they have partnered with Action Main d’Oeuvre, a local non-profit organization which provides vocational support for adults with ASD or intellectual disabilities. Their project is based on three pillars: knowledge translation of research evidence to key stakeholder groups, a pilot study of employer-employee dyads, and an ongoing evaluation survey for employers receiving Action Main d’Oeuvre’s services.

The idea behind this project is to promote work environments that are more open to diversity and more inclusive. “A lot of the work that has to be done involves advocacy and going to all these other parties and saying listen, it’s not just the people with ASD or the people with disabilities who need to improve their skills,” comments Dr. Nadig. “We have to check our biases for the betterment of society, to be able to gain from the contributions that they have to give.” As healthcare professionals, we will likely be faced with similar situations: although we help our clients progress in therapy and work towards functional participation, they still face barriers and our society can do much more to be inclusive of people with any type of disability. Additionally, some populations have serious difficulties getting access to much needed services, as is the case for adults with ASD without intellectual disability. SLPs do not widely work with adults with ASD, although it can be argued that many issues facing this population are related to social-communication. It is in these situations that our role as advocate becomes crucial. Dr. Nadig’s work is an admirable example of how we can work on changing the environment—and pushing the boundaries of our profession—in the pursuit of better serving everyone in our community.

SIDE NOTE

Last spring, several students took a special seminar class taught by Dr. Nadig about adults with ASD. As a part of that class, students organized an Autism Awareness Outreach event, featuring a film screening and a panel discussion with Mr. Georges Huard, who identifies as having Asperger’s syndrome, part of the autism spectrum. Mr. Huard led an open discussion about ASD and humor, with a question-and-answer session facilitated by the students. The film, Asperger’s Are Us, was made by a group of comedians on the autism spectrum; their aim is not to draw explicitly on their experiences with autism, however, but rather to just be funny. In the end, both the film and the discussion helped audience members relate to people with ASD, which in turn raised awareness about ASD and encouraged inclusivity. “It was the perfect display of how SLPs can help to address a gap in acceptance and in service,” reflected Chelsea Osei (class of 2018), one of the student organizers.

 

Chelsea is currently working at Summit School in Montreal with teenagers with ASD.

A video of Mr. Huard’s talk can be found here:

Information about the Transition Support Program can be found here: http://transitionsupport-adultsasd.scsd.mcgill.ca/

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