Systematic Instruction, Hands-on Career Education, & Video Modeling Increases Job Skills for Students with Autism

dr-spriggs-headshotDr. Amy Spriggs, University of Kentucky, Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling, has dedicated her life to public education. First, as a Sunday school teacher working with a child with Down syndrome; then to special education in K12 schools and now as a professor and researcher teaching undergraduate and graduate special education teachers. Dr. Spriggs is a leading authority in the field of research-centered and evidence-based instruction to advance the academic, behavioral and social learning environments for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities. Her teachings and investigative research have helped to significantly transform the education for students with special needs through instructional delivery and proven methodologies.

 How the Beta Study of Career and Life Education for Students With Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities Was Conducted

In 2015-2016, Dr. Spriggs led a tri-state beta research project to determine if an adapted career and life education curriculum with systematic instruction, video modeling, visual supports, and a system of least prompts would improve the knowledge, job skills and social behavior of students, ages 11-21, with ASD and other developmental disabilities. The curriculum used for the study was Project Discovery, developed by Education Associates, Inc.

Instructional Framework Used for Research Integrated Both Job Skills Training and Academics

Project Discovery was used as the curriculum for the research. Project Discovery courses cover more than 50 career modules that integrate both job skills training and academics for students at all learning levels: adapted, beginning, intermediate and advanced. Progress monitoring and data reports track student performance for compliance. The five-step framework is based on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) best practices and includes hands-on activities and materials to engage students with multiple means of expression, representation, and engagement. The five steps are:

  • “First Look” – Students preview activities for background vocabulary and visual support.
  • Model Hands – On Instruction – Students view and listen to PowerPoint instructions to explore career tasks through small step instruction.
  • Video modeling – Students view tasks through video demonstrations of tasks being performed.
  • Lead – Teachers model live demonstrations to repeat and reinforce the job skill.
  • Perform/Test – Students perform the job skill using a Visual Schedule.

Explicit Delivery of Instructional Model

In the first session, educators delivered explicit, small step instruction in two service industries with Project Discovery — Child Care and Table Service. Trained educators worked with students ages 11-21 with moderate to severe ASD and other developmental disabilities in classrooms across Kentucky, Wisconsin and Minnesota. On average, students received 45 minutes of instruction, four days per week, including group instruction, video modeling, and individual task practice. System of least prompts was used to teach and assess task completion. Data collected encompassed how independently steps in each task were performed.

Research Results Showed Significant Improvement in Knowledge and Job Skills for Students with Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities

   Beta Test Results 

  • Child Care – Pre-Post results averaged an increase of 61.7% in career knowledge.
  • Table Service – Pre-Post results averaged an increase of 55.3% in career knowledge. 
  • Each site showed growth in performance across all activities for all kits.

All student groups experienced gains in knowledge and job skill performance in test results. Also noteworthy were increases in some students’ communication skills.

Teachers and students alike reported enjoying the curriculum and seeing the positive impact it had on students, both in gaining work and life-ready skills and in career decision making.  Teachers not only planned to use the curriculum again after the end of the beta testing, but also requested additional career modules when available.

Teachers would recommend Project Discovery as an evidence-based transition solution in the development of students’ Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).

Educators appreciated the quality of teacher instructions and the actual rigor of the curriculum including hands-on activities, real photos, audio support, role playing activities and games. Teachers also valued the customizable nature of the curriculum to meet individual student needs and differentiated learning styles and noted the ease to which they could deliver systematic instruction using smartboards and computers.

This is a Game Changer for Students and Teachers. Effective Job Skills Development thru Evidence-Based Instruction is Critical for Long-Term Success! 

It is estimated that in the United States ASD services cost citizens approximately $236-262 billion annually (Buescher et al., 2014).  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 16.8% of persons with developmental disabilities were employed in 2014. The Autism Society Organization reports that 35% of persons with ASD (ages 19-23) have not had a job or received postgraduate education (Shattuck et al., 2012). The Centers for Disease Control reports a prevalence of autism in U.S. children with increases of 119.4% from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68).

Dr. Spriggs reports, “There is clearly a need for more structured job and life skills curriculum in our education system. Teachers often don’t have access to evidence-based practices for transition related skills, yet this is critical for students’ long-term success. This is a game changer for teachers and students.

A failure to prepare this underserved student population with vocational skills places a tremendous burden on students, their families and society from an academic and economic perspective. If students do not learn marketable job skills, they are eight times less likely to find gainful employment. Project Discovery’s instructional model sharpened our ability to deliver a structured framework that elicited near errorless learning. Teachers were well equipped with a complete curriculum model to support learners with even the most severe disabilities.

The video modeling is a critical component to teaching students with autism to stay focused on a job or task and to retain that information rather than being distracted.  This beta study confirmed that students with autism and other developmental disabilties are capable of learning with systematic instruction and video modeling.  One student spoke sentences for the first time.  Her teacher was thrilled.  To that success we cannot begin to place a true value on this beneficial program.”


Amy Spriggs, Ph.D. has a Bachelor of Science, Master of Education and Doctorate Degrees in Special Education from the University of Georgia and over ten years working with students with ASD and other moderate/severe disabilities. She is the Faculty Chair for the Moderate and Severe Disabilities Program at the University of Kentucky and has authored numerous book chapters and publications and presented her research at many national and state conferences.  

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