Ashleigh Hillier, PhD

Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
University of Massachusetts Lowell


A Social and Vocational Skills Support Program for Adolescents and
Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum.



Aspirations: An overview

Aspirations: Frequently Asked Questions

Aspirations: Brochure

Aspirations: Application paperwork

Aspirations: Driving Directions

Aspirations: Volunteer Opportunities

Aspirations: How to Make A Donation

Aspirations: Quotes







Aspirations - An overview

Aspirations is a social and vocational skills support group for adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum aged between 18 and 30 years.  Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D. is the Program Director and a Psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Aspirations is designed to provide the opportunity to discuss and learn about social and vocational experiences in a small group setting with five or six other individuals. Two experienced group leaders facilitate an atmosphere of acceptance and support as participants develop self-awareness, social insight, and vocational success strategies. Aspirations also provides an opportunity for group members to meet others on the autism spectrum and gain support and understanding from one another.  Participants are encouraged to develop friendships with other group members.


Aspirations runs for eight weeks and meets once a week on Tuesdays from 3.45-5.00pm at the University of Massachusetts Lowell south campus. We run the program in the Spring and Fall. The next available group will start in February 2011. However, Dr. Hillier will add your name to a waiting list in case someone drops out of a group which is running sooner than these. We charge $150 for the eight weeks to cover costs of the group (scholarships are available for those who cannot afford the fees).  


We also have a facilitated parent support group which runs at the same time and in the same building as the Aspirations program. This gives parents the opportunity to meet, talk and share useful information.  There is no charge for the parent support group.


For further information contact:

Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Psychology

University of Massachusetts Lowell
1 Mahoney Hall

870 Broadway Street
Lowell, MA  01854

Phone: 978-934-2930

Fax: 978-934-3074


Dr. Hillier's Home Page


Aspirations - Further Information: Frequently Asked Questions


1)      What is Aspirations?

Aspirations is a social and vocational skills support group for high functioning adolescents and young adults (18-30 years) on the autism spectrum. Social and vocational skills are discussed in a small group in order to learn new things and develop understanding. Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D. co-founded the program in 2002 at The Ohio State University before she moved to the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


2)      Who is in Aspirations?

There are usually 6 individuals in each group. Everyone has a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder, such as high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome.

There are also two group facilitators who help guide the discussion and keep the group focused and on topic. Participants must provide proof of diagnosis to participate in Aspirations (e.g. a recent neuropsychological report, letter from psychiatrist / psychologist etc.).


3)      When and where is Aspirations?

Aspirations runs for eight weeks once a week on Tuesdays from 3.45-5.00pm. It runs twice a year, once in Spring and once in Fall. Aspirations takes place at the University of Massachusetts Lowell south campus in Mahoney Hall.


4)      What are the main aims of Aspirations?

a)      Developing self awareness, insight and independence

b)      Learning how to experience positive social interactions and relationships

c)      Fostering insight in to the importance of success in school and rewarding employment

d)      Exploring solutions to challenging situations in our personal and professional lives

e)      Fostering friendships between group members


UML Students:

In addition, Aspirations provides UML Graduate and Undergraduate Psychology students unique opportunities to work with adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum and to connect and apply course content to practical applications. The students provide excellent role models for those in the program. Many of the students intend to move in to professional positions working with people on the autism spectrum when they graduate. Therefore, Aspirations provides an extremely important opportunity for them to gain experience and the skills they will need to be effective and successful professionals. Students participate for course credit, or as volunteers. Please see the section below on volunteer opportunities for more information.


5)      What do the group members do in the meetings?

Aspirations is a discussion group. The group facilitators provide topics of conversation each week based on our established program curriculum. A topic of conversation could be “Making Friends”, or “Getting Along with Others in the Workplace / Classroom”. Group members discuss each topic as a group, bringing up their own experiences, giving each other advice, and discussing the relevant issues. This enables group members to learn from one another and develop new ideas. The group facilitators encourage group members to think and talk about important issues and challenges in their lives, and develop strategies to overcome these challenges.


6)      What is the Aspirations group like?

Everyone in the group has many things in common with each other and have had similar experiences in the past. The group facilitators are there to help guide the discussion. Group members have the opportunity to discuss things in their lives they find challenging and then get ideas from each other and the group facilitators about how to overcome those challenges.



7)    Who runs the Aspirations program?

Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D. is the Program Director and a Psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Dr. Hillier has spent many years working with adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum and currently runs a number of other programs including the “Aspirations” weekly social and vocational skills program, the “SoundScape” music program, “Fit and Fun” physical activity and relaxation program, and a Movie Club. Further information about these other programs, as well as Dr. Hillier’s resume, can be found on her website:

Dr. Ashleigh Hillier’s brief bio:

Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Dr. Hillier completed her PhD in Psychology at the University of Lincoln in England, and her post-doctoral training in the Department of Neurology at The Ohio State University Medical Center.

Dr. Hillier’s main research interests include neuropsychology, psychophysiology, and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). The focus of her research is the processing and understanding of affective material among those on the autism spectrum. Dr. Hillier’s research includes investigations of emotional memory, physiological responsiveness and subsequent memory for emotion eliciting stimuli, and the effects of psychosocial stress on cognition among those with ASD. Dr. Hillier’s applied research program involves managing and evaluating a number of intervention programs for adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum including social and vocational skills programs, a music based program, and a physical exercise and relaxation program. Her work has resulted in a large number of publications, national and international conference presentations, and grant awards. Further information is presented in her resume which can be accessed here.


8)   Does Aspirations have any research aspects to it?

In order to evaluate the impact and success of Aspirations we collect data from group members who are willing to take

part in our research component. This information is kept completely confidential and is only seen by staff of the

Aspirations program. This data is taken from responses to questionnaires which are administered before and after

participation in the program. Responses to the questionnaires are compared to see whether there are any changes

after the program compared to before. Changes in responses between the two measurement points may indicate that

Aspirations has had an important impact on group members. We also conduct observations during the Aspirations

sessions. The information collected helps us improve the sessions, and provides us with information regarding the

success of the program. It is important for us to evaluate Aspirations firstly, so we can make useful improvements to

the program, and secondly, to achieve financial support for the program.


9)    Is there any support available for parents?

We also have a facilitated parent support group for those who have children in the Aspirations program.  While their son / daughter is in the nine week program parents meet weekly at the same time in the same building, and have the opportunity to talk and share useful information.  There is no charge for the parent support group.


10)   What is the money from the fees used for?


Group members pay $150 for the eight week program (scholarships are available for those who cannot afford the fees). There are no fees for the parent weekly and monthly support groups. This money is used to cover the costs of the program including advertising expenses, printing brochures, and travel to organizations and conferences to disseminate the program model. Any remaining funds help cover the expenses of Dr. Hillier’s autism related research work. Dr. Hillier’s research focuses on understanding and processing emotions among those on the autism spectrum.




11)   What is the next step for joining Aspirations?


You can complete the application paperwork and either email or mail it back to Dr. Hillier (contact information below).

Contact Dr. Ashleigh Hillier and let her know that you are interested in yourself / your child being involved in

Following review of this paperwork, if it seems like you / your son / daughter would be a good match for Aspirations, Dr.

Hillier will invite you to UMass Lowell to meet in person. At this meeting Dr. Hillier will explain more about the Aspirations

program and answer any questions. She will also find out more about you / your son / daughter, again to ensure the

Aspirations curriculum will be beneficial to you.


Contact Dr. Hillier at:


Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Department of Psychology

University of Massachusetts Lowell

1 Mahoney Hall

870 Broadway Street

Lowell, MA 01851

Phone: 978-934-2930











Aspirations - How can I volunteer or get involved with Aspirations?


Students at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who are interested in getting involved in the Aspirations program should contact Dr. Hillier at This can be done as a volunteer, or for course credit as perhaps a Directed Study or Community Service course.













Aspirations - How to Make Donations



Donations are helpful to maintain and enhance the Aspirations program.  Up to date books and literature on Asperger's Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Disabilities, which would be useful to those on the autism spectrum and/or their parents would help enhance our Program Library. Monetary donations can be made by writing a check to: University of Massachusetts at Lowell - Aspirations Program, and mailing it to: Ashleigh Hillier, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Psychology Department, 1 Mahoney Hall, 870 Broadway Street, Lowell, MA 01864.  A letter of acknowledgement and appreciation will be issued by the University for donations that are made to the Aspirations program.  The acknowledgement letter can be used as a receipt when filing taxes.














Aspirations - Quotes from Participants & Parents


"As a parent of a teenager with Asperger's, I had the opportunity to meet with other parents of similar children the first time.  We all  quickly became comfortable – many of us willing and longing to share so many experiences and information.  I felt an immediate connection with the other parents and know that we will continue to reach out to each other and work together to provide the best for our boys in the future. "     Parent of Summer 2007 Group.


" I have learned more from the group members than I ever dreamed I could have through reading or my coursework.  Providing guidance to the group on how to learn how to handle their everyday struggles with peers, school, and work environments was a unique and rewarding experience for me."   UMass Lowell Graduate student, Fall 2007.


"I think it’s been wonderful.  For myself. Maybe even more for me than for [my daughter].  I think it’s been nice to network with other parents." Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"It’s been nice to have [my son] look forward to coming and feel a belongingness.  It was nice for him to mingle with older kids." Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"One thing I noticed, my son, I didn’t hear him complain about not wanting to go. Usually by the second or third session he’ll come up with some excuse why he doesn’t want to go, but I never heard him say anything about not wanting to go so that’s something for him." Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"Meeting other parents, networking and getting their feedback as to how they handle different situations has been a great thing." Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"To quote [my daughter], she said the first time on the way home that she hasn’t been this excited about anything in a long time. She was very excited about this program. I think she was at a giant relief to really meet people that were very common to her, and she felt very, very, very relieved, there was a sense of a relief that she has experienced through these 8, 9 weeks that she hasn’t experienced in a long time. I mean, and for me too, I felt a lot of relief, well there is a place in this world for my daughter. And there is a place in this world that she can meet friends". Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"We’ve seen a huge difference in her behavior, because she was having a lot of behavior issues, and was down on herself, and we’ve noticed a huge change in her just coming to these classes. She was excited to come to these classes to meet new people and be able to socialize with people, and be able to connect with certain people in the group." Parent of Spring 2008 Group.


"There was nothing that I didn’t enjoy. I enjoyed the program overall. I enjoyed meeting everyone and discussing various discussion topics and of course learning about each other’s life experiences and how to make our lives better overall despite of our disabilities.  And it’s given me more confidence in how to reach my goals and make a better life for myself." Member of Spring 2008 Group.



Quotes from students who have participated in Aspirations:


"It was a great opportunity and privilege to have been a part of Aspirations. Our Tuesday meetings were always exciting, challenging, and sometimes with unexpected twists. Moreover, we always had fun! We all learned a lot from eachother, and for me, as a student, this practical experience far exceeded any classroom learning." UMass Lowell Undergraduate Student, Spring 2008.


"I learned so much from this program, both in an academic sense, and learning about myself. I never realized how difficult certain situations can be for these guys, and how it makes me think not to take things for granted. Watching these guys over the past 8-weeks has shown me how kind and gentle their souls are, and how they are walking away with a greater knowledge about life with thanks to Ashleigh and Nataliya. I am glad I was able to be a part of this program, and watch young lives evolve in front of my eyes." UMass Lowell Undergraduate Student, Spring 2008.


"Overall, this program has been really inspiring for me. It has opened my eyes up to the hardships and struggles that those with ASD have to go through everyday. It was so insightful to sit "behind the scenes" and observe their thoughts and concerns about the future. I think it would be helpful for everyone to explore the lives of people with Aspergers/autism. Overall it's been great. I am so glad I had the opportunity to observe  this wonderful group of people. It has actually made me think more about working with children in schools with autism and Aspergers. So thank you Dr. Hillier for this experience!" UMass Lowell Undergraduate Student, Spring 2008.


"I think Aspirations was the program that I got the most out of. I enjoyed so much meeting the participants and being able to make some kind of connection with each of them. I think Aspirations is such a good program for people with ASD." UMass Lowell Undergraduate Student, Fall 2009.


"Both were rewarding experiences that I would do all over again. I learned a lot that I will take with me in my future. It was also an amazing feeling to have participants and parents tell me “thank-you”, explain how much I have helped, and how important it is that there are people like me who have an interest in helping this population of people." UMass Lowell Undergraduate Student, Fall 2009.

















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