Initiative for young adults with autism adds distance learning

The leaders of a new Vanderbilt initiative for young adults with autism are looking to expand its reach through distance learning.

Launched a year ago to serve primarily Middle Tennessee residents, Spectrum Pathways has generated out-of-state interest with some participants flying into Nashville to take part.

The launch of the program also revealed that high-functioning young adults on the spectrum, those working jobs or enrolled in college, often lack systems of support.

“The reason people are flying into town is that there are virtually no services and programs that serve the needs of these individuals,” said T. A. McDonald, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Neurology associated with the study.

The initiative aims to improve the lives of young adults with autism spectrum disorders who often end up socially isolated once they leave high school. It begins with a week of engagement where participants take part in activities that range from visiting an art museum to navigating public transit. The immersion week is followed by 3 months of weekly, individualized coaching sessions by phone.

Photo of Beth Malow, M.D.

Beth Malow, M.D.

“If we could simulate through a distance learning program what we are doing with the immersion week, we could reach more participants throughout Tennessee and neighboring states,” said Beth Malow, M.D., M.S., Burry Professor of Cognitive Childhood Development, professor of Neurology and Pediatrics and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator.

The program helps participants with communication challenges, organizational obstacles, conflict resolution, goal setting, and overall well-being. Spectrum Pathways matches the participants with specially trained Vanderbilt University students. The students gain community service experience and a greater appreciation for neurodiversity.

“We’ve added a coaching-only arm,” McDonald said. “When we first ran this, it was all centered right here in Nashville, but we found that some adults were employed and were in school and were struggling. They wanted extra support so they reached out to us, and they said, ‘How can I be a part of this program when I work full-time or I am in school full-time?’ We found that a lot of them had social goals. They had goals that were related to their health and well-being.”

The initiative has served three cohorts of participants, 30 cumulatively with a fourth cohort planned for Fall 2018. Malow and McDonald are actively pursuing grant support to develop the distance-only arm in the upcoming year in conjunction with the VKC Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (TRIAD) and hope to pilot it in 2019.

This initiative is made possible by a Vanderbilt Trans-Institutional Programs (TIPs) grant. Faculty with the School of Medicine, the College of Arts and Science, and Peabody College have developed the program.

Spectrum Pathways is currently accepting applications from participants and student coaches.

For more information about the Spectrum Pathways study, email or call McDonald at 615-343-2626.

Collaborators with Malow*, Vanessa Beasley, Ph.D. (Communication Studies & Dean of Martha Rivers Ingram Commons), and McDonald on this initiative include Blythe Corbett*, Ph.D. (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), Erik Carter*, Ph.D. (Special Education), Katherine Gotham*, Ph.D. (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), Linda Manning, Ph.D. (Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences), Tyler Reimschisel*, M.D. (Pediatrics), Elisabeth Sandberg, Ph.D. (Psychology), and Julie Lounds Taylor*, Ph.D. (Pediatrics). Deborah Wofford serves as program coordinator (*designates VKC affiliation).

Tom Wilemon is information officer, Vanderbilt University Medical Center News & Communications.

Pictured top of page: Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., leads Spectrum Pathways participants and team members in “Jump Into Action,” a theatre game used in Corbett’s SENSE Theatre® intervention research program for youth with autism.

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