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Master’s Student in Experience Design. Semester Thesis Project
4 months. Formal presentation in Dec. 2022.
VCU Autism for Education, User stakeholders, Professors
Figma, User Research, Adobe Illustrator & Photoshop, Accessibility Design Toolkit, Keynote, Prototyping 


Creating Ascend – An Inclusive Platform for Autism Spectrum Disorder Transition Support

ASCEND, an interactive online platform, is designed to offer comprehensive services, support, and resources for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during their transition from adolescence to adulthood.


As part of my master's thesis, I developed a branded online experience and community outreach program in collaboration with Autism Speaks. This initiative aims to position ASCEND as the preferred platform for individuals with ASD and their parents/caretakers, facilitating a smoother transition from high school to adulthood.

Jump to: 

* My work was recognized by a team member at Autism Speaks and has been annotated by professionals in the industry. Want to know more about my learnings? Contact me at


The Problem

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)  are often confronted with the reality of 'falling off the services cliff.'

Parents and caretakers of individuals with ASD spend considerable time anticipating the moment when their child will leave home and strive for independence.

The transition from high school to adulthood is accompanied by a sense of dread. A series of events occur that feel akin to "falling off a cliff."

Here are three key reasons why:


Unpreparedness & lack of transition planning

High school students on the autism spectrum receive support through special education.


Each student has a dedicated team that collaborates to determine essential services, mandated by federal law to prepare them for young adulthood.


Sudden termination of supportive services

After high school, the legal mandate for support ends.


There is no federal requirement for adult supportive services, and eligibility rules often differ from those in special education.


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. 

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70% of families report that great effort was needed to access and search for services following high school. 

National Autism Indicators Report, 2018


The Opportunity

Solve the pain points & listen to the community.

In order to gain better insight, I listened and spoke 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. 

User Research


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.”  


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 can we enhance transition planning and programming to better address the distinctive needs of individuals with autism?

This improvement aims to reduce the likelihood of youth slipping through the gaps in the system, offering more families a vision of bridges on the horizon rather than cliffs.

The Solution

A dynamic, inclusive and digital platform for transition planning and programming.

Introducing ASCEND — an innovative online learning and resource platform, powered by Autism Speaks. This interactive tool is designed to effectively guide users in planning, managing, and tracking progress throughout the crucial transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Leveraging Autism Speaks' existing resources, Ascend is charting the course for comprehensive transition planning, shaping a brighter future for young adults with ASD.

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Community Partner

Autism Speaks Inc. stands as a prominent non-profit dedicated to autism awareness and serves as the largest autism research organization in the United States.

Their current 10-year plan underscores a steadfast commitment to enhancing transition services:

"Empowering individuals with ASD and their families through effective transition plans, fostering more independent and meaningful adult lives." - Autism Speaks, 2021

Welcome to


To offer comprehensive resources, support, and transition planning services tailored for individuals with ASD and their families.


To empower individuals with ASD by providing the resources essential for maximizing their potential, and to support their advocates in joining them on their lifelong journey.


To safeguard against any individual with ASD facing the service cliff and the conventional challenges accompanying the transition to adulthood.

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Powered by Autism Speaks 

Key Features

Key Features 

Ascend offers users a personalized interactive dashboard, online training, and lifelong plans encompassing three vital domains: vocational, social, and life skills, along with access to Telehealth support.

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How It Works

Let's walk through the platform: 

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

How It Works

Meet Justin

Individual with ASD

Central to the process is crafting a personalized plan that prioritizes the individual, considering strengths, needs, challenges, and medical history.


Currently, accessing post-high school assistance involves a time-consuming CSA Assessment, including paperwork, observation testing, and team meetings.


Ascend streamlines this process, making it more accessible and efficient for individuals like Justin. See below: 

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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).

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, ultimately leading to a roadmap for  better transition planning and next steps for services and supports. 

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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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. 


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. 


Brand Messaging

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

Ascend transforms the daunting journey of transitioning to adulthood, making the services cliff more manageable.

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

Future Product 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

* If you're curious about more of the process for this project, please reach out! I'd be happy to walk through the case study presentation deck. 


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


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. 

I created a roadmap for myself in terms of the problem, opportunity, and solution I was trying to solve. View here 

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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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