Promoting School Connectedness and Wellbeing for Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum: A Multilevel Approach

Year: 2019

Author: Shochet, Ian, Saggers, Beth, Carrington, Suzanne, Orr, Jayne, Wurfl, Astrid

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Focus and relevance

There is an increased risk of mental health problems in adolescents on the autism spectrum. Adolescents need to navigate complex peer relationships and other developmental challenges. Prevalence estimates for depression in young adolescents on the spectrum are as high as 54%. These co-occurring mental health problems have an impact on future developmental prospects including reducing the likelihood of advancing to tertiary education and subsequent employment. Thus it is vital to find strategies to promote mental health and wellbeing for this population. While family and individual difference variables are of great importance, our research has also highlighted the vital role of school connectedness for adolescent mental health. Adolescents on the spectrum can struggle to develop this important sense of belonging. This presentation reports on our research funded by the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism (Autism CRC) on a multilevel model to promote school connectedness and wellbeing for adolescents with autism.

Design and methods.

We developed and evaluated a multilevel intervention model (Shochet et al., 2016) at the school, parent and individual levels that aims to conjointly promote adolescents sense of belonging and connectedness at school as well as their resilience (i.e. their capacity to manage and regulate their emotions and self-esteem in times of stress). Participants were young adolescents on the spectrum, their parents and selected school personnel from five urban schools in Brisbane. The individual level interventions consisted of an adapted version of the school based intervention for adolescents Resourceful Adolescent Program (RAP-A-ASD) and the associated program for parents (RAP-P-ASD). The school level intervention drew on the Index for Inclusion (Booth & Ainscow, 2002).

Results and Findings

We examined parent and adolescent reports of program experiences using the rigorous consensual qualitative research (CQR) method. For adolescents key findings included a greater capacity to keep calm, manage anger and respond maturely in challenging situations; increased openness and social engagement; and enhanced communication and social skills. Parents reported that the program enhanced wellbeing and parenting efficacy, reduced isolation, increased ability to parent calmly, and improved parent-adolescent relationships. The school level intervention using the Index for Inclusion highlighted a varied range of ways that schools were able to identify and change procedures and actions to enhance inclusion and connectedness. We will also present our current initiatives to increase the reach of these interventions through the development of a website. Aspects of the website will be demonstrated.