High school teens anxiously await reaching their milestones: getting a driver’s license, going on a date, attending prom and securing a job.

But for the latter rite of passage, the task becomes more daunting for youths with autism spectrum disorder transitioning to the workforce.

University of Michigan researcher Matthew Smith has devoted more than eight years to helping young people with ASD gain employment through virtual job interview training, in partnership with tech-training company SIMmersion.

As a follow-on to this work, the National Institute of Mental Health awarded a $3 million grant to U-M, SIMmersion and Michigan State University to develop a virtual reality training tool for youth with ASD to improve their workplace social skills to help them keep the jobs the virtual interview training helps them earn.

“One of the exciting things about this project is that we are working directly with the autism community, teachers, employers and diversity experts to develop an intervention that not only seeks to assist autistic youth to sustain employment, but is inclusive for autistic youth from diverse communities — an approach that is often overlooked,” said Smith, associate professor of social work.

The new training tool, Social Cognitive and Affective Learning for Work — provisionally available in 2022 — is designed to help learners communicate effectively with customers, co-workers and supervisors within a virtual workday.

SIMmersion Chief Operating Officer Laura Humm said the firm is applying what it learned in past collaborations with Smith’s Level Up: Employment Skills Simulation Lab at U-M.

“Our PeopleSim conversation engine will drive the practice conversations, the coach will be available to give tips and feedback, and we’re building a 3-D version of the fictional big-box store Wondersmart to help learners engage,” she said.

The training tool will have three levels, allowing users to build and practice their soft skills in a fun, interactive way:

  • Understanding People in the Workplace will include nine modules that focus on how to use tone-of-voice, facial expression, body language and context to evaluate a situation and decide how to act.
  • Workplace Conversations will include practice conversations like responding to customer needs, building rapport with a co-worker and getting feedback from a supervisor.
  • Virtual Workday includes common events and conversations that happen during a shift — actions made early in the day that can impact what comes later. For example, a poor customer interaction may result in a constructive feedback session with a supervisor.

The program has widespread applicability. Each year, about 60,000 transition youth with ASD are ready to enter the workplace but need help developing the soft skills needed to keep their jobs and be successful in the workplace, said Connie Sung, MSU associate professor of rehabilitation counseling and director of the Supporting Transition and Employment Preparation Lab.

“For individuals with ASD, soft skills don’t always come naturally, but it’s definitely something they can learn and get better at,” she said.

Once the program is built, U-M’s Level Up Lab will evaluate the effectiveness and implementation. Smith created the Level Up Lab to use technology to enhance employment outcomes for underserved and marginalized communities.

He said the commitment by the National Institute of Mental Health to support autistic youth transitioning into the workforce is critical and necessary “to improve the difficulties autistic youth have sustaining jobs compared to their peers without disabilities.”