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Calls to Action

Sobering Picture of Young Adults with Autism

May 14, 2012

Young adults with autism face a more difficult time navigating work and education after high school than do individuals with other disabilities, according to a new study funded in part by a grant from Autism Speaks. The study was published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

Thirty-five percent of those with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were completely disconnected from work and educational opportunities in the first six years after high school, says lead author Paul Shattuck, Ph.D., of the Brown School of Social Work, at Washington University in St. Louis. Rates of employment and education were lowest for those from low-income families. Shattuck is also a member of Autism Speaks Family Services Committee.

Shattuck’s team examined data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, a nine-year study of adolescents enrolled in special education during high school. They compared the employment and post-high school education involvement of young adults (ages 19 to 23) with ASD with that of other disability groups. These other groups included individuals with learning disabilities, intellectual disability, or speech-language impairment. 

The ASD group had the lowest overall rate of any participation in work or education during in the first two years after high school: over 50 percent.

However, higher rates of employment and college participation were seen among those who ranked as “high ability” on a scale of functional life skills. Nearly 60 percent had attended some college. Just over 80 percent had some sort of paid work in the years since leaving high school. By contrast, 11 percent of those with “low ability” on the same scale had attended any college, and 23 percent had some paid work.

Shattuck notes that approximately 50,000 individuals with ASD will turn 18 this year in the U.S. “Many families with children with autism describe turning 18 as falling off a cliff because of the lack of services for adults with ASDs,” he says. “The years immediately after high school are key,” he adds. “They are the time when people create an important foundation for the rest of their lives.

The researchers call for further research into the development of effective services to help young adults with ASDs make a successful transition into adulthood and employment or further education. Particular attention should be paid to interventions that will help low-income youth overcome barriers to accessing services and achieving fuller participation in society, Shattuck adds.

“As always, Dr. Shattuck’s research helps raise awareness of autism as a lifetime issue,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “As researchers and advocates for those with ASD, we must increase our emphasis on improving outcomes and quality of life for adults, including increased research into the services, educational and employment opportunities that can effectively increase independence and quality of life."

Autism Speaks is currently funding a number of studies that seek to identify and more effectively address the transition needs of adolescents and adults with ASD. Please also see our related blog post.

For more resources on transition and adult services, see Autism Speaks Transition Tool Kit and Autism in the Workplace. Autism Speaks is also proud to be a member of the Advancing Futures for Adults with Autism consortium. Also see “The Need for Autism Services Goes Beyond Economics” and “As Autism Soars, No One is Left Untouched,” on our science blog.