Adults with autism virtually learn how to get the job

Adults with an autism spectrum disorder, who may have trouble talking about themselves and interacting socially, don't always make good impressions in job interviews and have low employment rates.

A new human simulation training program—based on software originally used to train FBI agents—helps adults with autism improve their job interview skills and confidence, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

The new interactive program was designed specifically for adults with psychiatric disorders and was also evaluated for use by adults with . This is the first intervention using human-based simulation that gives these adults repeated practice and feedback on their interviewing skills. The program is now available to the public.

"Adults with an autism spectrum disorder tend to have difficulties with social communication, which may interfere with them having a successful job interview," said lead study author Matthew J. Smith, a research assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Our program helps trainees learn to talk about their ability to work as a team member so they sound easy to work with. They also learn how to sound interested and enthusiastic about a potential job, as well as convey that they are a hard worker."

The study will be published May 8 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The employment rate for people with autism is very low. In 2009, only 33 percent of young adults with autism had a job. Approximately 50,000 individuals with autism turn 18 each year.

"We hope that this training program can improve the employment potential for persons with autism spectrum disorder," said senior study author Michael Fleming, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Feinberg. "Many people with this disorder would like to work but have trouble getting a job."

The program was a collaborative effort between Northwestern, SIMmersion LLC and Morris Bell, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine to develop and test the training program.

The trial included 16 individuals, ages 18 to 31, who received the job interview simulation training and 10 in the control group who did not. Those in the training group each practiced 15 to 20 with the virtual reality training.

Subjects completed two baseline and two follow up interviews with a trained actor playing a human resource employee. The videos of these role-plays were then scored by a human resources expert, who did not know which individuals received the intervention.

For the role-play scores, the training group improved by 11 percent compared to 1 percent for the control group. In self-confidence scores, the training group improved by 22 percent compared to 7 percent for the .

The computer or Internet-based training provides users with the opportunity to repeatedly engage in a simulated job interview with a virtual human resources staff member named Molly Porter. Trainees gain experience by speaking their responses to Molly's questions using voice recognition software.

Each of Molly's questions has 10 to 15 responses that have varying degrees of appropriateness and were created by a panel of vocational rehabilitation experts. The virtual environment also provides a job coach who gives in-the-moment feedback about whether the trainee is responding in a way that helps or hurts rapport with Molly. Trainees receive a score at the end of each interview with scores of 90 or better informing them that, "You've got the job!"

When an individual accesses Molly, the program has certain features so a person can identify a disability. The program will take that into account when it asks questions in the job interview. The program was designed to get increasingly difficult as an individual progresses and masters basic skills.

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