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New Special Education Grants Support Transition Research, Practice and Policy

By Kurt Brobeck

Two new grants highlight Vanderbilt University’s growing role in the design and evaluation of transition services for youth and young adults with autism spectrum disorders or intellectual disability. Erik Carter, associate professor of special education and the primary Vanderbilt investigator on both grants, says that the Department of Special Education in Vanderbilt’s Peabody College is providing a unique focus to an under-investigated area in special education.

With much of the attention of special education researchers focused on early childhood, Carter says that youth and young adults with disabilities, from middle school to about age 25, are often overlooked. Transition to life after high school is rarely seamless. “Students with autism tend to have the most disappointing outcomes,” says Carter. “There is far too little rigorous research at the secondary level.”

In the first grant, Vanderbilt is serving as one of six research sites affiliated with the new Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. The center is based within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. The center is being established through a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. In addition to Vanderbilt and UNC at Chapel Hill, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of California, Davis, are participating in the research.

“The goal of this project is to develop a comprehensive intervention model for high school students with autism,” says Carter. Center researchers are investigating five key elements they believe are necessary to make a real difference in the lives of adolescents: support for families, transition supports, independence skills, academic success, and forging social connections. Carter will lead the effort to develop and evaluate the social component of the intervention.

Over the next two years, he and his team will gather information from various stakeholders, pilot a social-focused intervention, and then partner to combine that intervention with the other key elements being developed. Carter’s team intends to work closely with a small number of students with autism in several Middle Tennessee high schools. They will seek to enhance students’ social skills directly as well as to increase the confidence and capacities of their peers and the adults in their lives to encourage strong social connections and successful transition to employment.

The second grant, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is providing $1.7 million to reshape policies and practices in Tennessee to ensure that students with intellectual disabilities leave high school equipped for meaningful work. According to Carter, too many students with intellectual disabilities graduate “to the couch,” while those who obtain employment work primarily in sheltered workshops. Meaningful work, says Carter, can be defined by competitive pay, employment in the community, and supportive relationships with co-workers.

Carter, along with Elise McMillan, co-director of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, have launched the Tennessee Collaborative on Meaningful Work comprised of 28 different state agencies or organizations. Workgroups within the collaborative will develop initiatives aimed at employers, schools, families and youth, community members, and agencies and policy-makers.

Carter describes a three-tiered effort that begins with broad dissemination efforts, but that will also include specific regional training and support for implementation, and one-on-one coaching. “What we are trying to do is shape Tennessee systems and policies so that everything aims at connecting young people to integrated, competitive work. We have to make sure that policies across every state system are aiming at the same thing and working in tandem to make sure that is the first and preferred choice for young people with disabilities,” says Carter.

Carter earned both his master’s degree and his doctorate at Vanderbilt in special education before being hired by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004. While there, he led efforts to identify effective approaches to connect young adults to meaningful work via Project Summer and by developing peer-mediated interventions and alternative approaches to paraprofessional services. In 2009, Carter received both the Distinguished Early Career Research Award from the Council for Exceptional Children and the Early Career Award of the American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

In 2011 he elected to return to Vanderbilt and Peabody College. He cites the quality of intervention research conducted by faculty as well as the ability of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development to support interdisciplinary work as strong factors in his decision to return to Peabody. “Vanderbilt has the resources and commitment to do large-scale interdisciplinary research that can really make a difference in the lives of young people and that penetrates practice across the state,” he says.