The purpose of this reflective essay is to advance the importance and value of participant-oriented research (POR) at research universities by providing lessons learned and best practices based on a case study of community collaboration as it relates to a strengths-based educational model for students with autism. This evidence-based program’s success centers on the inclusion of students, parents and community partners in the design, delivery and evaluation of the program. This program exemplifies how POR can effectively address complex social issues by emphasizing interactions with community partners and underserved populations who provide critical input on interventions, programs and services that are designed with and for them. We propose that it is time to engage with this viable research methodology that transcends service and offers a pragmatic and progressive approach to creating both trust and relevance with university and community partnerships. Bench science and experimental designs are complemented by the inclusion of POR to address complex social issues.