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Vocational Rehabilitation Service Models
for Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Effective Program: Project Search Print E-mail

Project SEARCH

For inclusion in this Effective Program category, VR Autism focused solely on the two Project SEARCH sites that serve only people with ASD—the Project SEARCH at Bon Secours Richmond Health System/St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond, VA; and Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism at New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, NY.

projectSEARCH logo

Mission Statement

Project SEARCH is a one year, school-to-work program for young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The innovative workforce and career development model benefits the individual, the workplace, and the community. Meaningful, competitive employment is the goal for all Project SEARCH program participants.

The current specific goals of Project SEARCH are as follows:

To continue establishing new program sites in new business sectors and new geographic locations so that more young people with intellectual/developmental disabiliities (IDD) will have the opportunity to participate in Project SEARCH.

To continue developing the Project SEARCH international database to improve our ability to track program outcomes.

To enhance the Project SEARCH Training Institute, which provides instruction in effective implementation of the Project SEARCH model, with the overall goal of improving employment outcomes.

Contact Information

Project SEARCH
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
3333 Burnet Ave, MLC 5030
Cincinnati, OH 45229
Phone: 513-803-5404
Fax: 513-636-2570

Organizational Profile

Project SEARCH was developed at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center, a research environment that fosters visionary thinking and innovation. In 1996, Erin Riehle was Director of Cincinnati Children's Emergency Department. Erin felt that, because the hospital served individuals with developmental disabilities, it made sense that they should commit to hiring people in this group. She wondered if it would be possible to train people with developmental disabilities to fill some of the high-turnover, entry-level positions in her department, which involved complex and systematic tasks such as stocking supply cabinets. As a starting point, Erin presented her ideas to Susie Rutkowski, then the special education director at Great Oaks Career Campuses. Erin and Susie formed a partnership that was instantaneous, and together they launched Project SEARCH.

Since its inception, Project SEARCH has grown from a single program site at Cincinnati Children's to over 200 sites across the United States and Canada, England, Scotland, and Australia. Project SEARCH's primary objective is to secure competitive employment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities including persons with autism spectrum disorders.

Project SEARCH is essentially a not-for-profit franchise. So, while hundreds of individuals work at the 206 program sites, they are employees of the local partner organizations that collaborate to create the sites. The central administration based in Cincinnati—the Project SEARCH International Support Team—consists of 6 full-time employees and 2 consultants housed at Cincinnati Children's, and an international team of 6 Project SEARCH consultants located throughout the U.S. and the UK.

This group is focused on the monitoring of program outcomes and continuous improvement of the Project SEARCH model. It is also responsible for program replication and the dissemination of program model innovations. This work includes managing licensing agreements, providing technical assistance for program site implementation, managing the international database, managing communications, procuring and managing grants, performing program site fidelity audits, and managing and staffing the Project SEARCH Training Institute.

Program Design

Project SEARCH primarily serves young people between the ages of 18 and 22. Most of the student interns in the program are in their last year of high school eligibility. Project SEARCH consumers typically have completed all academic requirements for high school completion, but are on deferred graduation.

The Project SEARCH High School Transition Program is a one-year internship program for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including students with ASD. It is targeted for students whose goal is competitive employment. The program takes place entirely at the workplace so students learn relevant, marketable job skills that employers need. Student interns benefit from hands-on internships, where they receive training in specific job skills, and classroom instruction, where they learn general employability skills. In addition, program participants receive customized job-search assistance.

Program Effectiveness

As noted above, inclusion in this Effective Program category, VR Autism focused solely on the two Project SEARCH sites that serve only people with ASD—the Project SEARCH at Bon Secours Richmond Health System/St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond, VA; and Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism at New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, NY.

  • Competitive employment is defined by Project SEARCH as working 20 hour/week or more in an integrated setting, making at or over minimum wage, and in a non-seasonal job.
  • All program participants spend approximately 600 hours working in internships at a job site before graduating and receive the necessary job coaching to succeed in their internships.

The employment statistics below reflect only the ASD-specific sites listed above:

  • As of November, 2012, Project SEARCH Bon Secours/St. Mary’s has had two graduating classes, and has achieved employment for 100% of program graduates.
  • As of November, 2012, Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism has had one graduating class, and has achieved competitive employment for 60% of program graduates. Job development for that class is ongoing and that percentage is likely to increase.

What people are saying about Project SEARCH

"The interns learn jobs that can be accomplished through complex, systematic routines. They develop skills that make them attractive candidates for a variety of jobs both at Seton and elsewhere in the community." Jenny Hawkins, program coordinator for Project SEARCH at Seton Medical Center Austin.

"When businesses identify the strengths of employees with disabilities, then put them in jobs that match their skills, those employees turn out to be faithful, low-turnover, hard-working employees." Teresa Tanner, Fifth Third Bank, Executive Vice President, Chief Human Resource Officer

"I like Project SEARCH because I can get different kinds of jobs through the program. I work at the hospital with my co-workers and friends. They treat me good and make me happy. They treat me like part of the team. I want to stay here for a long time." Jill F., Clinical Support Technician & Project SEARCH Graduate, Cincinnati Children's

"Project SEARCH is a real transition option for individuals moving forward from secondary education. It fosters productive work habits and necessary interpersonal skills for the workplace. Career and technical has joined with business, State, county and non-profit partners to provide exceptional work immersion experiences. This unique opportunity targets successful employment outcomes for our Project SEARCH participants. " Anne Wisniowski, Pupil Services Director

Success Story

Meet Nelson: Nelson is a 22-year-old young man with autism. As a child, he did not speak until he was almost 5 years old, and had difficulty understanding social rules, taking social cues and making friends. When Nelson learned to speak, his voice and actions were robotic and awkward. Nelson quickly became frustrated when he could not make himself understood and would often run out of the classroom. He was not confident in his own abilities and he relied on teacher support to complete assigned work. Nelson did not maintain friendships with his classmates outside of school.

In 2011, New York Collaborates for Autism (NYCA) started a Project SEARCH high school transition program based on the Project SEARCH model pioneered by Cincinnati Children's Medical Center. NYCA currently partners with NY Presbyterian Hospital as the host employer, Southern Westchester BOCES as the educational partner, Westchester Arc as the vocational rehabilitation partner, and NY Presbyterian's Center for Autism and the Developing Brain as consultants providing the necessary autism expertise. A curriculum specially designed for adults with autism has been designed and the program is called Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism (PSCA).

Nelson entered PSCA in his last year of high school eligibility. He was socially awkward and lacked confidence. Upon entering the program, Nelson’s desired job was to work with animals, but he knew that he did not want to clean up after them.

PSCA taught Nelson social rules such as how to arrange lunch with a co-worker, make a phone call, and communicate in a work setting. In order to practice these skills, Nelson was matched with two mentors, workers at NY Presbyterian, who provided him with regular social opportunities. Nelson also was taught how to develop friendships with his fellow interns and learned how to share social stories in a work setting.

As part of PSCA, Nelson worked in three 10-week internships in various departments: the Pharmacy, Food Services, and Building Services. By the time Nelson graduated, although he still liked animals, he learned through the career exploration that was integral to his participation in PSCA, that he really enjoyed working in a kitchen. He liked the camaraderie of working as part of a team, he enjoyed making sandwiches, and he had developed confidence in his social interactions. Nelson focused his job search on a job involving these skills and today is working at Panera Bakery in his home community. He has enjoyed a great deal of positive feedback through customer compliments and manager reviews. Nelson is adjusting to adult life in the community, is confident, and continues to maintain friendships with interns he met during his time in Project SEARCH Collaborates for Autism.

Cost of Program

Project SEARCH is free to consumers because it utilizes a combination of school and VR funding to provide teaching and job coaching to eligible participants.

Income sources for Project SEARCH programs will vary from site to site, but typically the bulk of the funding comes from the program partners: an education provider; Vocational Rehabilitation; DD services; and a host business.


Each Project SEARCH site is different, though the staffing chart below is a general approximation of a typical site.

Job Title

Total Number

Percent Time

Key Tasks


1 per site


  • Coordinate internships, classroom activities, and individualized job search for each student.

Job Coach

1-3 per site

60 - 100%

  • Job skills training at internship sites

Business Liaison

1 per site

5% to 10%

  • Coordinate host business involvement with Project SEARCH

Job Developer

1 or 2 per site

5% to 10%

  • Oversee individualized job search for each student.

VR Counselor

1 per site

5% to 15%

  • Oversee VR role in Project SEARCH program.

Necessary for Successful Replication

Program replication is a key mission of Project SEARCH. The Project SEARCH model has been successfully implemented at 206 sites throughout the U.S. and abroad, and this number grows every year. This replication is possible because the model relies on strategic leveraging of resources that are already available in most communities.

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