Research highlights the importance of vocational activities for adults with autism

November 15, 2021
A man on the spectrum at work

A study recently published in Autism Research, the official journal of the International Society of Autism Research, shows that vocational activities like employment, volunteer work and post-secondary education are associated with higher well-being and quality of life among young adults with autism.

This research is important because previous studies show that between 50% to 60% of young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) participate in few vocational activities, experience limited social connection and/or struggle to live independently. This can greatly impact well-being and quality of life, as employment and other vocational activities often allow people to develop confidence, social connections and skills to live independently.

The study followed a sample of 151 adults over a span of 10 years (from ages 18 to 28) in order to understand how their participation in vocational activities evolved over time and the effect of those activities on their well-being.

The results revealed that people with autism fall into four distinct vocational activity groups that differed in their happiness levels:

  • The “No Activities” group had little to no participation in vocational activities.
  • The “Volunteer Activities” group participated in volunteer activities or sheltered employment for 10 hours a week or less.
  • The “Supported Activities” group participated in supported community employment (with the help of a job coach or other support person) for more than 10 hours a week.
  • The “Independent Activities” group participated in post-secondary education or independent community employment for more than 10 hours a week. People in this group had higher verbal and non-verbal IQ in childhood and adulthood than the “No Activities” and “Volunteer Activities” groups.

Participants in the “Independent Activities” group had significantly higher parent-reported happiness levels than those in the “No Activities” group, and significantly higher self-reported happiness levels than those in the “Volunteer Activities” group. They were also more likely to have more frequent social contact than the other activity groups. Those in the “No Activities” group had the lowest happiness scores of any group, showing that any level of participation in vocational activities can improve the well-being of adults with autism.

Furthermore, people did not typically change their vocational activity level over time—instead, they tended to stay in the same group over the 10-year span. While those with independent employment generally stayed employed over the 10-year period, those with supported, volunteer or no employment struggled to improve their vocational outcomes over time. This emphasizes the importance of early, targeted employment services among transition-aged youth, and the need for more programs to support young adults in the transition to independent activities.

*The Nicholas Center supports individuals with autism at Spectrum Designs Foundation enterprises.