Molly Losh is one of the world’s preeminent researchers of communication impairment in individuals with autism and related disorders. Yet her focus has widened in recent years to include advocacy as a large piece of her work’s puzzle. Namely, advocacy for teens and adults on the autism spectrum seeking gainful employment — which she has done to marked success through Northwestern’s involvement in the job training and internship organization Project SEARCH.
“We’ve witnessed people learning new vocational skills, working hard to understand the workplace culture, and the process of becoming comfortable working in a large social group,” says Losh, the JoAnn and Peter Dolle Chair in Learning Disabilities in the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) in the School of Communication. “These developments are quite meaningful to witness and very special to be a part of.”
Project SEARCH is a now-global network of programs aimed at training young adults with autism to secure employment and excel in the workforce. Its outcomes fill an ever-growing need as the number of autism diagnoses steadily rise and adults on the spectrum increasingly find themselves with few options after leaving high school. Losh and her colleagues in the department and at the Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning excel at early childhood interventions for autism. But where she and others see a critical gap in care is for older children, teens, and adults.
“Autism is a lifelong condition, and as individuals age they have changing needs for services and support,” Losh says, citing recent cuts to state budgets that have essentially shut down many services for adults in Chicago and elsewhere. “With the rich expertise of our department’s clinicians and our growing autism research programs, we have an opportunity to really become leaders in addressing this tremendous need.”
Losh began at Northwestern in 2010 and soon after developed a relationship with Have Dreams, an Evanston-based autism organization led by Kristine Johnsen. Losh and Johnsen, alongside several other key members of the Northwestern community, worked together to bring about what became the first Project SEARCH site in Illinois. Johnsen praised Losh for her approachable, inclusive demeanor, as well as CSD’s resources and research opportunities.
“Molly and her department are true partners and excellent mentors,” Johnsen says. “The collaboration between research and practice is so valuable.”
In 2013, and with the assistance of Losh and Have Dreams, the University as a whole joined the Project SEARCH effort with a yearlong internship program for teens with autism in their last year of high school. Dubbed “Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism at Northwestern University” (PSCA@NU), students were immersed in both classroom and workplace activities built around strengthening job skills, communication skills, life and career planning, and problem solving.
Losh’s first intern at her Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Laboratory was Marice Aiston. The now-24-year-old fielded a number of tasks in her five months of full-time work, which included data entry, an area in which she excelled.
“I really liked working there,” Aiston says. “The coaches and people working in the lab said that my work was very accurate because I did not make many mistakes. I was proud people could see I could do the work.”
The lab has been a uniquely effective training ground for Project SEARCH participants. Losh says those on the spectrum tend to flourish in tasks that are structured, repetitive, and detail oriented, such as computational work and data entry, of which the lab has plenty to offer. Additionally, those in the lab are very familiar with autism and know to keep overstimulation at bay, make changes in increments, and provide the appropriate support. It also assists Project SEARCH with intake evaluations, where candidates are assessed for skills and job fit, so the lab is seeing the process from all sides.
Now in its third year, the internship includes a graduation ceremony held in early June. The University recently hired its first Project SEARCH program graduate, a clerical support staffer in the Office of Alumni Relations and Development.
“The University offers a terrific variety of working environments for Project SEARCH interns,” Losh says. “They are able to gain experience and select tasks that align with their own interests, and so will be most beneficial in helping to gain skills to prepare them to enter the competitive workforce.”
Successes are measurable and meaningful. Interns routinely leave the program and are hired by a growing group of area businesses that have made a priority of employing adults on the spectrum. Losh recalls Marice Aiston arriving at the lab shy and hesitant. Over time she began initiating greetings, and after that, conversations. She’s now an order expediter at a suit manufacturer.
“My internship was my first real job,” Aiston says. “(It) showed that I could work, and other young adults with autism want to work, too.”
Losh’s lab has been funded by the National Institutes of Health to examine profiles of adults with autism to quantitatively identify strengths and weaknesses in terms of job skills. Other interdepartmental grant proposals explore innovative technologies to train adults on the spectrum for employment. And then there’s the advocacy.
“My lab has been involved as a co-sponsor in several events aimed at fostering transitions to independence and employment among people with autism,” Losh says. “This is such an important effort, especially since once a person exits the public education system they lose most services, and so resources for supporting this critical transition period are virtually nonexistent.”
More than 3.5 million Americans live with autism spectrum disorder, which now translates to an estimated 1 in 68 births — a ten-fold increase in the last 40 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly one-third of young adults with autism have neither secured work nor pursued education after high school. Just over half of twenty-somethings with autism have employment compared to about 74 percent of young people with intellectual disabilities. Autism services cost U.S. citizens up to $262 billion annually, with about two-thirds of that going toward adult services, according to the Autism Society.
Northwestern’s CSD department as well as the affiliated clinic offer numerous cutting-edge diagnostic and treatment services to the autism community of the Chicago area. An innovative Developmental Diagnostic Team performs in-home early interventions with children and families and has garnered attention for its success. Plans to include older children and young adults in this model are ongoing. Additionally, several labs and research projects, which rely heavily on student participation, aim to tackle autism from its genetic underpinnings all the way to adult services that include employment initiatives and symposiums.
Project SEARCH was developed in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center when its founders began hiring individuals with developmental disabilities to fill entry-level positions with high turnover. Project SEARCH now includes more than 300 sites in North America, Europe, and Australia.