Young Adults with Autism At Disadvantage After High School

A teen boy stands apart from other students.
(Image credit: Teens photo via Shutterstock)

Young adults with autism face more barriers in the years right after high school than graduates who have other kinds of learning disorders, a new study finds.

The researchers reviewed a national database to see how recent high school graduates with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) fared in terms of finding employment or going on to postsecondary education.

The researchers found that, on average, 35 percent of the graduates with autism did not participate in further education or join the work force, a higher rate than any other group.

By contrast, the rate of young adults with a speech or language impairment who didn't have a job and weren't in school was 7 percent. Among students with learning disabilities the rate was 3 percent, and among students with severe mental disabilities it was 26 percent.

"They were just not involved with anything. There was a much higher rate than young people with other kinds of disabilities," said study researcher Paul Shattuck, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

However, the rates among graduates with an ASD grew lower with the years. While 59 percent were neither working or continuing their education during the first year after their graduation, that figure dropped to 11 percent in years four through seven.

"There is a 'Things get a little better' story as time goes by," Shattuck told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The next step, said Shattuck, is to determine why so many young adults with autism are left out of these opportunities.

A lack of research

While there has been increased awareness of autism and more emphasis on early intervention for children with the condition, that hasn't translated to adults with autism.

"What's important to realize is that the majority of a typical lifespan is spent in adulthood," said Shattuck. The vast majority of autism research to date has focused on very young children. "We know very little about how life unfolds, and what life looks like for adults with autism."

Many with autism find that help for them diminishes once they pass school age.

"It is easier to work with younger children with ASD than young adults and adults. Their needs become more complex, services are limited and the service systems are often uncoordinated," said Amy Matthews, director of the START Project at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. The project trains school staff members who work with students with autism.

"Some folks may need help in terms of supports for employment or job coaching, others may need help in order to live independently," said Lisa Goring, vice president of family services for Autism Speaks, which was one of the funders of the study.

"Before they graduate from school, there are education entitlements," Goring said. "There are some adult services, but they are not entitlements. And so there are waiting lists in order to get those services."

A worsening problem

With the rising number of autism diagnoses, those backlogs will only get worse, Goring said.

Going forward, Shattuck said, researchers could draw on the new study as a baseline to see whether interventions are succeeding in improving students' lives.

"We can really get at some questions that haven't been poked at very much in autism research," he said.

One of the findings showed the impact of financial resources on employment and education.

Young adults in the study received a grade (from 1 to 4) for their autism severity. Among those with the least severe condition, 3 percent who were from families with incomes above $75,000 hadn't entered college or found employment. That number was 13 percent for students from families with less than $25,000 in income.

Meanwhile, for young adults with the most severe autism, 45 percent of those from high-income families were not in school or employed, whereas among those from poorer families, that number was 79 percent.

"Coming from a low-income level is a significant strike against you, no matter what your severity with regards to the autism spectrum," said Shattuck.

In the future, he said, interventions will have to account for that. Smaller studies done with one group of children may not take into account differing results arising from socioeconomic status.

The study appears online today (May 14) in the journal Pediatrics.

Pass it on:After high school, many with autism have difficulty finding places in higher education or jobs, as well as fewer services to help them along.

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Joe Brownstein
Joe Brownstein is a contributing writer to Live Science, where he covers medicine, biology and technology topics. He has a Master of Science and Medical Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and natural sciences from Johns Hopkins University.