More than 3.5 million Americans are currently living with an autism spectrum disorder, and the vast majority of both government aid and public awareness focuses on those individuals while they are children. But a new report from the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute has examined what happens when those children reach the transitional age of young adulthood — and the picture is not encouraging.
Around two-thirds of young people on the autism spectrum were neither employed nor received continuing education in the first two years after high school, the study found, with the pattern following about a third into their early 20s.
“Families, service providers, community leaders and policymakers still know too little about the experiences and outcomes of young people on the autism spectrum as they enter their adult lives,” read a news release put out by Drexel University April 21.
The scale of the problem is perhaps best demonstrated by comparing employment rates for young adults with autism against those for their peers with other disabilities. Only 58% of 20-somethings with autism were employed, according to the report’s findings, as opposed to 74% of young adults with intellectual disabilities, 91% with speech impairments or emotional “disturbances,” and 95% with learning disabilities.
Lack of Official, Personal Support
Part of the problem, researcher Paul Shattuck told NPR, is something called the “services cliff,” or the lack of support for young adults with autism. “[A]ll of a sudden, when you graduate high school, the special ed services go away. What you’re left with is a hodgepodge patchwork of different public services that are pretty difficult to access,” Shattuck said.
Moreover, many young people with autism lack social support structures. The Drexel team found that about a quarter of young adults with autism were completely socially isolated, meaning they hadn’t seen or spoken to friends nor been invited to a single social event in the past year.
Experts say one of the best ways to improve employment opportunities for people with autism is to focus on what they can do, rather than what they find challenging. Microsoft, for example, has recently begun a widely publicized pilot program to hire more full-time employees with autism; people with autism are sometimes very good at tasks that require pattern recognition or picking out things that don’t belong, such as errors in computer coding.
It’s important, Shattuck said in the university’s news release, to do more research and quantify what steps can be taken to get more young people with autism into promising careers.
“While the picture looks bleak, we found that some of those who have the most significant levels of challenges do go on to find jobs and attend further education,” he explained. “A critical next step is to figure out what facilitates connections to outcomes and what helps people to continue to succeed across their early adult years.”