New app to help teenagers with autism

A new app is being developed to help people with autism transition from high school to university and increase their employment prospects.

Only 42 per cent of people with autism had jobs, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ most recent study in 2012.

Curtin University PhD student Megan Hatfield is developing the STEP-A program to help teenagers’ transition to university.

“The aim is to get them to start thinking about what they might be interested in early on in high school,” she said.

“Especially for teens with autism, because they are so anxious a lot of the time about change.

“The earlier we can start preparing them for that transition, the better.”

Curtin University health science professor and project leader Torbjörn Falkmer said teenagers with autism were more likely to stay in school if they started planning their careers early.

Jacinta Reynolds, 20, has Autism Spectrum Disorder and said she found the transition from high school to university “really daunting” at first.

“It was a big struggle. I wasn’t really sure how it was going to work out,” she said.

She said being brave and being herself were the biggest things that helped her.

“It wasn’t until my first set of exams were over that I realised no one actually cares if I’m a bit weird.”

The size of the campus was also a challenge for Ms Reynolds, but she was eventually able to use it to her advantage.

“There were crowds everywhere [but] there were also lots of places to hide,” she said.

“So, if something did go wrong, I knew there was somewhere I could go.”

People using the app work through three steps, the first being to identify their strengths and interests.

“Everyone has strengths and everyone has something to contribute,” Ms Hatfield said.

“We want to leverage those and build up their confidence, so they can enter the world feeling like they have something to give.”

The second step of the program is to identify a support network, which includes school, parents, therapists and employment services.

The final stage involves goal setting.

“This can include real life experiences, getting mentored, life skills, all of that stuff we know helps adolescents to succeed after they leave school,” Ms Hatfield said.

I CAN Network autism mentoring program founder Chris Varney said STEP-A would help people with autism transition from high school by providing support and a source of advice.

“It’s great to see a tool like this being developed in conjunction with people with autism, like myself, to provide that lived experience and advice and ensure the finished product meets the needs of people on the spectrum,” he said.

The STEP-A program will be available Australia-wide next year.

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