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Study Suggests Community Colleges Provide Advantages for Young Adults with Autism

Graduation rates higher when college students with autism start in a community college; advantage greatest for science/tech majors
November 01, 2013

New research finds community colleges may play a particularly important role in fostering transition into productive lives for individuals on the autism spectrum.  The findings appear this week in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Last year, researchers painted a grim picture of life beyond high-school for young adults with autism. A major study, funded in part by Autism Speaks, found that they were less likely than any other disability group to be employed or enrolled in higher education between ages 19 and 23. The research highlighted the urgent need for better supports to help young adults with autism make the transition to becoming productive and fulfilled members of society.

About one-third of all young adults with autism attend college in the years right after high school. The study analyzed attendance and graduation information on nearly 200 of them, using the National Longitudinal Transition Study for 2001 to 2009. Of those who had graduated or were still in college when the study ended, 81 percent had spent at least some time in a 2-year community college.

What’s more, nearly half of students with autism who majored in science, technology, engineering or math in community college successfully transitioned to a four-year university. This was true of around a quarter of the students with autism who were majoring in non-science/tech fields.

The findings provide strong evidence that community colleges are an important pathway for many students with autism, says co-author Paul Shattuck. Dr. Shattuck studies life-course outcomes at Drexel University’s AJ Drexel Autism Center, in Philadelphia. He was also the lead researcher on the disturbing 2012 study mentioned above.

Dr. Shattuck calls for further research to find how community colleges can better support students with autism and other developmental disabilities.

“Research such as this is so important in helping us find the best ways to support those with autism as they make the often difficult transition to adulthood,” adds Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks associate director for public health research. "This research reminds us that when we understand the challenges and provide the proper support, there are very real pathways to postsecondary education." 

For guidance and resources on postsecondary education, please see Autism Speaks Postsecondary Opportunities Guide.

Autism Speaks continues to fund a number of studies on supporting the transition to adulthood. You can explore these and all the research Autism Speaks is funding using this website’s Grant Search. This research would not be possible without the passionate support of Autism Speaks community of families, volunteers and donors.

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