Researchers tracking children with autism into middle adulthood have found that the single most-important predictor of success is the mastery of self-care skills such as bathing, dressing, cleaning and cooking.
According to their analysis, these skills prove more important than language, intellectual ability or the severity of autism symptoms when it comes to maintaining employment and achieving life satisfaction.
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“Autism symptoms, language ability and intellectual function certainly contribute to adult outcomes,” says lead researcher Laura Klinger, of the University of North Carolina’s TEACCH Autism Program. “But the single most important predictor of adult employment turns out to be the basic skills of daily living.Being employed, in turn, is strongly related to adult quality of life.”
Dr. Klinger calls the results “tremendously hopeful.”
L“We can’t necessarily change IQ or symptom severity,” she explains. “But we can teach daily living skills.”
Along these lines, Autism Speaks is funding the TEACCH program to develop and deliver programs that help teens with autism develop the skills they need for into adulthood and employment. (Learn more about these research and community grants here.)
Following children into mid-adulthood
In their current study, the TEACCH team is following up on 149 people diagnosed with autism as children at their center between 1970 and 1999. Using both caregiver surveys and in-person assessments, they are assessing independence, employment, mental health and overall quality of life.
As children, the majority of these adults had scored in a low IQ range indicating intellectual disability. Most continue to have difficulty with conversational language as adults. Around 40 percent are employed, though only 12 percent are living independently.
Of particular interest, Dr. Klinger says, is a subgroup of participants who as children showed low daily living, or “adaptive,” skills but relatively mild autism symptoms and normal to high IQ. In the follow-up survey, these adults tended to have been employed, but were unable to maintain employment.
“This is a group where I think we can make a big difference if we can help them master daily self-care skills,” she says. Ideally this type of training would have been provided in childhood. But self-care classes for adults with autism may prove equally effective, she says.
“I see our results as a wake-up call,” Dr. Klinger concludes. “Self-care is not something we’ve targeted as much as, say, social and language skills in children’s autism intervention programs.”
Adds Lucia Murillo, Autism Speaks’ assistant director for education research: “Studies such as this help us understand how to better target interventions that promote the best outcomes for our loved ones with autism. It gives us the long-term perspective, which is too often overlooked but can ultimately lead to increased independence and a more fulfilling life.”
Learn more about Autism Speaks-funded research and community grants supporting adults with autism here.
Also see “Spectrum Careers” a new jobs portal from Autism Speaks and Rangam Consultants.