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Research shows job services failing to meet needs of youth with autism

Researchers urge greater use of autism-specific supports; many teen boys and men with autism need particular help with anxiety
July 27, 2015

A pair of new studies suggests that state vocational services for people with disabilities are doing a poor job of helping young people with autism prepare for and get jobs.

Both studies appear in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

By federal mandate, all states have vocational rehabilitation services that provide a variety of employment-related services to people with disabilities, including autism. These can include vocational training, counseling, job placement and supported employment.

“The problem is, they generally aren’t very effective for people with autism,” comments David Kearon, director of adult services for Autism Speaks. “These new studies highlight some of the most critical barriers facing teens and young adults with autism today.” Autism Speaks was not directly involved in the research.  

In their first study, Connie Sung and colleagues at Michigan State University looked at employment outcomes for 5,681 people with autism who were using their state’s vocational rehabilitation services.

Transition-age youth (up to age 18) represented the largest subgroup in this study. Less than half (47 percent) secured employment – full- or part-time – after receiving services. The employment rate increased modestly to 55 percent for those ages 19 to 25 and to 61 percent for those 26 and older.

With some 50,000 people with autism entering adulthood each year in the United States, such low employment rates represent a huge and growing problem, the researchers argue. Young people with autism who don't find work, Dr. Sung says, are at particular risk for becoming house-bound and developing mental health issues such as low self-esteem and depression.

The report highlights a general lack of autism-specific supports in vocational rehabilitation services across the United States. In particular, the authors call for greater use of visual aids (people with autism tend to be visual learners) and greater emphasis on teaching appropriate social skills for work situations.

Gender differences
The second study, by the same team, looked at gender differences in the vocational training needs of teenagers and young adults who have autism. The researchers found that mental health issues pose a particularly strong barrier to employment for young men with autism. Having either anxiety or depression almost halved the odds of their finding jobs.

Anxiety and depression are common among people who have autism – regardless of gender. But these issues appear to pose less of a barrier to employment among young women, the study concludes. It may be that anxiety and depression are less obvious in girls and women with autism – at least in the workplace, the authors conclude.

The report calls for increased emphasis on job counseling that focuses on mental health, interpersonal skills and appropriate behaviors – particularly for young men with autism.

The researchers also emphasized the importance of doing more to help young people with autism secure internships or part-time jobs while still in high school – when they have support from special-education services.

“Placement in a community-based internships or work experience must be made a priority for transition planning during high school,” Kearon agrees. “The disconnect between the educational and vocational-rehabilitation service systems – as well as inadequate funding and autism-specific expertise – are fundamental parts of the problem.”

Autism Speaks is committed to providing resources and supports to increase employment opportunities for teens and adults with autism. Earlier this year, Autism Speaks launched, a jobs portal for individuals with autism. The portal was designed to promote inclusive employment of the autism community by connecting employers, service providers and employees on the spectrum.

The Autism Speaks Employment Tool Kit provides young adults and adults with autism with tips and tools to help them research, find and keep employment in the current competitive labor market.

Additional employment tools include An Employer's Guide to Hiring and Retaining Employees with Autism Spectrum DisordersA Parent's Guide to Employment for Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders and an Autism in Big Business Report.