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ASCEND

Online & Interactive Transition Planning Platform

Integrated tech + independent study + service design

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Overview

ASCEND is an online, interactive platform that provides individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) the services, support, and resources to ensure a better transition from adolescence into adulthood.

For my master’s thesis, I created a branded online experience and community outreach program in partnership with Autism Speaks to establish Ascend as the platform individuals with ASD and their parents/caretakers use to help with the transition from high school to adulthood.

My Role

I independently conducted research, developed the strategy, and designed the product and service concept. I created the brand’s logo and visual identity system and designed all touchpoints from UX/UI for web to community outreach and programming.

Tools Used 

User Research, Figma, Illustrator, Photoshop, Accessibility Design Toolkit, Keynote, Prototyping 

The Problem

Falling off the services cliff

 

Parents spend much of the teenage years anticipating whether and when their child will leave home and become independent. 

 

For parents of students with autism, there is often dread regarding the transition from high school into adulthood, which is sometimes described as falling off a cliff.

 

Here’s 3 reasons why:

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It starts with a plan

Many high school students on the autism spectrum get help through special education. 

Each student has a team that works with them to decide which services are needed to prepare him or her for young adulthood, and federal law requires school to offer the necessary services. 

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Help suddenly ends

Following the last day of high school, the legal mandate for help suddenly ends. 

There is no federal requirement for providing supportive services in adulthood. 

In fact, many services for adults with disabilities use different eligibility rules than in special education. 

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Help isn't always available

Services for young people on the autism spectrum often seem least available when they are most needed, leaving struggling families to navigate on their own.

Over one-quarter of youth on the autism spectrum receive no services once they reach early adulthood

National Autism Indicators Report, 2018. 

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70% of families report that "some" or "great effort" was needed to access services following high school. 

National Autism Indicators Report, 2018

The Opportunity

Solve the pain points

In order to gain better insight, I listened to the people directly affected by the challenges that come with the transition to adulthood.

 

After conducting interviews with mothers to individuals with ASD, individuals with ASD, and autism behavioral specialists, I analyzed similar pain points and began to ideate on how this experience could be improved for everyone involved. 

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Maureen Bennie
Owner at Autism Awareness Center 

"Out of necessity, I’ve had to come up with a plan to make each child’s day meaningful and interesting for them. It was important to have their input and hear their ideas in order to ensure the choices being offered were right for them.”  

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Alice Sanje
Mother to son with ASD

“At time of his graduation, I felt this terrible sense of fear and worry. While I was relieved and proud to watch my him receive his diploma, I couldn’t help but worry about what we were going to do next. We had no plan..I would’ve loved to have a guide on what to do next.”

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Anne Roux
MPH, MA, nationally renowned autism researcher and author

"The creation of effective transition planning and programming to meet the needs of individuals with autism who leave high school each year - each with unique strengths, interests, and challenges - is an urgent task for our society."

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How might we improve transition planning and programming to meet the unique needs of individuals with autism? 

So fewer youth would fall through the cracks in the system and more families can see bridges on the horizon instead of cliffs? 

The Solution

An interactive, digital transition planning and programming platform

Ascend, powered by Autism Speaks, is an interactive, online learning and resource accessible platform that more effectively guides users in planning, managing and tracking progress during the transition from adolescence to adulthood.

With the help of Autism Speaks existing resources, Ascend is paving the way for transition planning and the future for young adults with ASD. 

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Community Partner

Autism Speaks Inc. is a non-profit autism awareness organization and the largest autism research organization in the United States. 

Currently their 10 year plan highlights their commitment to improving upon transition services:

 

"People with ASD and their families have transition plans that result in more independent adult life that is meaningful to the individual." Autism Speaks, 2021

Welcome to
Ascend

Vision

To provide resources, support, and transition planning services for individuals with ASD and their families. 

Mission

To equip individuals with ASD with the resources they need to maximize their potential, and to empower their champions to join them on their lifelong journey.

Values

To ensure no individual with ASD is left to experience the service cliff and the challenges that traditionally come with the transition to adulthood. 

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Powered by Autism Speaks 

Key Features 

Ascend will provide an interactive dashboard specific to the user, online training and lifelong plans in three critical domains: vocational, social, and life skills, and access to Telehealth support. 

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Customization

One interactive dashboard generated specifically for the user based on personal information to help keep track of  information, resources, individualized planning and progress. 

Online Class

Resources & Services

Ever expanding course catalog and access to resources for job opportunities, financial support, transportation, and more help individuals acquire new skills for lifelong learning.

Checklist

Goal Tracking

Real-time tracking marks progress on course completion, goal achievement, and following the transition plan.

Video Call

Telehealth Support

24/7 access to a dedicated specialist on the autism response team, with the option to schedule sessions whenever needed.

How It Works

Let's walk through the platform: 
5-Part User Journey
 

Follow along from each user's unique experience with Ascend, strategically designed to solve prior pain points and challenges with the transition to adulthood. 

Meet Justin

Individual with ASD

The most important factor is creating a plan to focus on the individual; His or her strengths, needs, challenges, medical history, etc. 

Currently, the only way to receiving help after high school is by filling out the CSA Assessment: paperwork, observation testing, team meetings...which requires a lot of planning, time, and patience. 

With Ascend, this process becomes a lot easier for individuals like Justin. 

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Step 1: Onboarding

Based on feedback from current users, Ascend's onboarding is designed to be simple, quick, and painless. 
 
Breaking down a long CSA process into 5 questions gathering information about the individual to further provide the proper services and support. 

 

By completing Ascend's simple onboarding process, our system will help develop a unique and comprehensive plan specific to the user's needs (shown in later steps).

Onboardin & Profile Creation

Step 2: Profile Creation

Because every individual with ASD has a unique set of needs, it's important to provide services, support, and resources that are right for them.

Ascend's programming is able to evaluate the user's needs and generate content specific to their unique situation.

Creating a profile allows Ascend to generate an interactive dashboard based on the individual's needs including specific courses, resources, support, and transition planning (see dashboard below).

Step 3: Interactive Dashboard

After going through the onboarding, the user is directed to the Ascend interactive dashboard.

The dashboard serves as the hub for all things associated with the transition to adulthood, including access to resources and services, courses with digestible information about life, and community events as a way to better connect with people going through the same experience.

Resources & Services
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Meet Liz

Mother to son with ASD

The transition to adulthood involves the parent/caretaker just as much as the individual with ASD. 

Because parents/caretakers find it overwhelming to sift through a variety of resources available for the individual with ASD, Ascend has made it easy to digest all of the information under one platform. 

Liz is able to follow along with Justin to check progress, seek out resources and support, and gain access to an individualized transition plan for Justin. 

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Goal Tracking

Step 4: Transition Plan & Progress Tracking

Effective and individualized transition planning and progress tracking for individuals with ASD and their parents/caretakers to use throughout the transition to adulthood. 

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Meet Dr. Lee

Autism Behavioral Specialist

Autism Speaks, Autism Response Team (ART) is an information line for the autism community. 

 

The team members are specially trained to provide personalized information and resources to people with autism and their families. 

However, Ascend is taking the call center a step further and providing individuals with ASD 24/7 access to an Autism Behavior Specialist, like Dr. Lee, through telehealth integration.

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Telehealth

Step 5: Telehealth

Meeting with individuals with ASD over the phone through a call center line is not enough. More interaction provides better assessment of individual and specific needs.

 

Inaccessibility to support services is now accessible with online Telehealth option, video and messaging with an Autism Response Team Specialist of your preference. 

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Simply access the telehealth option through the dashboard and answer a few simple questions and quickly connect with a specialist, like Dr. Lee. 

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How can we interact with this community outside of the digital platform?

Through community outreach and physical experiences

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Physical & Digital 

Aside from the online dashboard, users can opt for a digital badge that lives in apple wallet and other smart devices.

Often times individuals with ASD have a difficult time explaining their specific needs to others. Upon request, Ascend will also send physical badge with the individual's information.

Whether physical or digital, these badges make it easy to share important information to employers, educators, friends, other case managers, healthcare team, etc. without the stress of others mis-understanding specific needs. 

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Community Outreach & Programming

In an effort to promote the program, the Ascend team will set up at schools and offer informational sessions on how to utilize the new online platform to make the transition to adulthood less challenging process.

In the future, the idea is that Ascend would be able to serve as a professional facility which individuals and their families can visit and learn more about the brand program and digital platform. Ascend would become a community space where members could interact and go through this process together. 

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Brand Messaging

For many young autistic individuals, adulthood can seem like a mountain of things you need to climb. 

For many young autistic individuals, adulthood can seem like a mountain of things you need to climb. 

Ascend is here to help you move forward. Let us help guide you in the journey to adulthood. 

Future Plans

Focus on the community feature as a way for individuals with ASD and the parent and or caretaker to connect. 

Add more vocational content and job opportunities. Partner with companies to hire individuals with ASD through Ascend. 

Build Ascend Community Center and offer after-school programs for individuals with ASD. 

Invite more community partners to bring a variety of resources and services all under one platform (Ascend). Hold community events with partners, inviting special guests and speakers. 

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The Process

Discovery

Understanding autism spectrum disorder and the resources available throughout school and into adulthood. 

During the initial stage of research, I delved deep into research by VCU Autism Center for Education and conducted several in depth interview with caretakers, individuals with ASD, and behavioral specialists to understand the scope of the situation.

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Legal Research and Writing

Design

In order to create the Ascend program and platform I completed opportunity maps, empathy maps, personas, user stories, competitive analysis on existing autism orgs., user journeys, wire framing, UX/UI design, and prototyping. 

Test & Refine

I ran several user tests with my stakeholders including a caretaker and an autism behavioral specialist. I compiled their feedback and annotated my designs. 

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The Reflection

My Why

My brother was diagnosed with Autism at a young age. My family has experienced first hand the challenges that come with the transition from high school to adulthood. I kept my brother, mom, and family in mind during the entire strategy and design process.

 

Making an impact for people and improving life experiences is a big motivator for me and wanting to pursue a career working on projects in accessibility design.

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