Autistic researcher tries to smooth the way for other autistic professionals

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Credit: Kelly James, Portland State University

An autistic researcher at Portland State University has received two federal grants totaling $467,000 to help other autistic people be more successful in the workforce.

Dora Raymaker, assistant research professor in the School of Social Work's Regional Research Institute, will lead a study to determine what helps autistic people do well professionally and develop a plan to improve their professional outcomes. Her research team will interview 95 people, including autistic people and those who work with them.

This study is both a personal and academic interest for Raymaker, whose own path to professional success has been an unconventional one. She says she faced discrimination, multiple career shifts and a disability services system often ill-equipped to provide support in skilled settings before finding an academic home at PSU and profession that values her abilities.

"I want to make the way easier for people who come after me," she says. "This is not only a culmination of my life, but it's also something incredibly important for the community."

Raymaker received a two-year $417,285 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health and a $50,000 pilot grant from PSU's BUILD EXITO, an undergraduate research training program funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Autism affects an estimated 1 percent of the population and is considered a "spectrum" that includes a wide range of cognitive and verbal skills. Little research has been done on what helps autistic people be successful in professions, even as more autistic children grow up and join the workforce.

Raymaker started the Academic Autism Spectrum Partnership in Research and Education (AASPIRE) with Christina Nicolaidis, a social work professor at PSU and physician at Oregon Health & Science University, 10 years ago to fill the gap between what the autistic community wanted from research and what researchers were delivering. They use a model of community-based participatory research to ensure that autistic people aren't just studied, but also are involved in all phases of the study.

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