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Calls to Action

Mounting Evidence of Critical Need for Adult Transition Support

Young adults with autism less likely than any other disability group to be employed or enrolled in higher education 


Approximately 50,000 individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) turn 18 each year in the United States. Yet life beyond the school-age years has largely remained uncharted territory in autism research. This may change following the sobering results of a study tracking young adults with autism over their first six years post-high school.

In the first two years after high school, over half of young adults with ASD had neither held paid employment nor enrolled in vocational training or college. This “no participation” rate was higher than that of any other disability group tracked in the study – including those with intellectual disability. Six years after high school, only a third of young adults with autism had attended college and barely half had ever held a paid job.

“The years immediately after high school are when people create an important foundation for the rest of their lives,” said lead investigator Paul Shattuck, Ph.D., of Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, in St. Louis. “Yet many families with children with autism describe leaving high school as falling off a cliff because of the lack of services for adults with ASDs.”

Research on autism treatment and support services has long focused on early childhood. On many levels, this is understandable. Early intervention has great potential to improve outcomes, and school systems need to provide appropriate support services.

Yet adulthood makes up the vast majority of a lifespan. To the degree that adults with autism fail to achieve independence, adulthood may also account for autism’s estimated lifetime costs of $1.4 million to $2.3 million. 

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

Among young adults with autism, employment and education varied with their degree of impairment. The highest rates were seen among those who ranked as “high ability” on a scale of functional life skills. In this group, nearly 60 percent had attended some college. Just over 80 percent had some sort of paid work. By contrast, 11 percent of those on the “low ability” end of the scale had enrolled in postsecondary education. Just 23 percent had ever been employed.

Overall, employment among young adults with autism rose with family income. It ranged from around one in three among families earning less than $25,000 a year to almost three out of four in families earning more than $75,000.

“This suggests that the right support services – such as those made possible by higher family income – can increase the chances for an independent and successful adulthood,” Dr. Shattuck said.

In his report, Dr. Shattuck called for research to determine the kinds of services that can best foster a successful transition into adulthood. He also highlighted the need for a special focus on interventions that can help low-income youth overcome barriers to accessing services and achieving fuller participation in society.

The journal Pediatrics published Dr. Shattuck’s report in its June issue. His research was funded in part by a grant from Autism Speaks.

“Dr. Shattuck’s research has played a tremendous role in raising awareness of autism as a lifetime issue,” said Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “As researchers and advocates for those with ASD, we must increase our emphasis on research that identifies the kinds of services and educational and employment opportunities that can effectively increase independence and quality of life."

Shattuck P, Carter Narendorf S, Cooper B, Sterzing P, Wagner M, Lounds Taylor J. Postsecondary Education and Employment Among Youth With an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Pediatrics. 2012; 129 (6): 1-8.

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