Virtual training may help adults with autism ace job interviews

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A simulated training program helped adults with autism spectrum disorder improve their job interview skills and confidence in a small new study.

“Individuals with autism spectrum disorder are typically (impaired) in their ability to socially communicate, so in the job interview setting, they may have difficulty picking up social cues,” lead author Matthew J. Smith told Reuters Health.

“They may have difficulty sharing things in a positive way or they may have difficulty coming across as easy to work with,” said Smith, a psychiatry researcher at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

The employment rate for adults with autism is very low and approximately 50,000 people with autism turn 18 each year in the U.S., say the authors.

The interactive virtual reality program, which the researchers call Molly, was designed to improve the interview skills of adults with psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as adults with autism spectrum disorder.

“The job-interview training program was actually created by a company called SIMmersion - they created it with the scientific guidance from our team here at Northwestern as well as a professor from Yale, Morris Bell,” Smith said. “And so the heart of the training is virtual - it’s a virtual human resources staff member named Molly Porter.”

The computer-based training provides users with the opportunity to repeatedly engage in a simulated job interview, so the trainees gain experience by responding to Molly’s questions.

“Over the course of the interview, she’ll ask different questions that are related to the job interview process, so one question could be, ‘If you could have changed one thing at your last job, what would it be?’” Smith said. “And then, trainees are presented with anywhere from five to 15 responses that they can choose as a response to Molly’s questions.”

He said the potential replies vary from being very appropriate to the job interview process to being potentially hurtful.

Voice recognition software allows the program to interact with the user. So, Smith said, the system provides a virtual job coach who gives immediate feedback about whether the trainee is responding in a way that helps or hurts rapport with Molly.

The program was designed to get increasingly difficult as an individual progresses and masters basic skills, he added.

Smith and colleagues wanted to test the feasibility of using the program for interview training and how much it would improve job interview performance, so they enrolled 26 people between the ages of 18 and 31 with ASD.

All participants completed baseline interviews and clinical assessments and then returned two weeks later to repeat two role-playing and self-confidence tests. Between those initial and final tests, 16 participants received the virtual job interview training and 10 comparison-group participants did not.

The training consisted of 10 hours of interviews with Molly over the course of five visits.

When the researchers compared the role-play scores at the end of the study, they found the training group’s scores had improved by an average of 11 percent compared to a 1-percent improvement in the comparison group.

In self-confidence scores, the training group improved by 22 percent compared to 7 percent for the comparison group, according to the results published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“So what we know is that, working with Molly improves interviewing skills - that’s what our data suggests,” Smith said. “And right now, we just completed six-month follow-up data on everybody where we wanted to ask them whether they were able to go out and find a job or whether they were able to find competitive volunteer work where they would need a completed interview just to get a volunteer position.”

That data is not published yet but looks promising, he said.

“I think the whole issue that people with ASD face related to interviews is among the most severe when it comes to getting a job,” said Carol Schall who directs the Virginia Autism Resource Center at the Virginia Commonwealth University.

“So I think an intervention of this sort is very important, particularly for those individuals who maybe are not as limited as it relates to their autism spectrum disorder,” said Schall, who was not involved in the new study but works with Project SEARCH, a program that helps high school students with autism transition to the job world.

Because autism spectrum disorder primarily affects an individual’s social communication, the whole setup of a job interview is going to be severely impacted by the disorder itself, she told Reuters Health.

Schall said that adults with autism often have a lack of understanding of the other person’s perspective so they don’t understand the purpose of an interview question or anticipate the answer that the person is looking for and are unable to tailor their answers to what interviewers are expecting.

SOURCE: Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, online May 8, 2014.