By Jenifer Goodwin
MONDAY, May 14 (HealthDay News) -- Young adults with an autism spectrum disorder are less likely to continue their education or get a job after high school when compared to young adults with other disabilities, new research indicates.
According to the study, only about 35 percent of young adults with autism attended college and only 55 percent had a job during the first six years after high school. Overall, they faced a greater than 50 percent chance of being unemployed or not attending college when compared to those with other disabilities, the researchers reported.
More than half of autistic young adults had no participation in either work or education during the two years after leaving high school, and even six years later more than one-third were without work or higher education, the study found.
"Many families with children with autism describe leaving high school as falling off a cliff because of the lack of services for adults with an autism spectrum disorder," said senior study author Paul Shattuck, an assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis. "So much of media attention focuses on children. It's important for people to realize autism does not disappear in adolescence. The majority of lifespan is spent in adulthood."
Part of the reason that young adults struggle after high school is that a core feature of the disorder is difficulty knowing how to interpret social interactions and handle a wide variety of social situations, something that is a necessity in many jobs, experts say.
But researchers also note that more educational and job-related support could help people with autism -- including the wave of children recently diagnosed -- who will be aging over the next decade as they find their place in society.
"We need to find ways to make room for adults with autism in our communities and help them get connected to opportunities that people with other forms of disabilities are participating in," Shattuck said.
The study is published online May 14 and in the June print issue of Pediatrics.
In it, researchers examined data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, a nine-year study of adolescents who were enrolled in special education because of autism, learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities or speech and language impairments.
Compared with youth in the three other disability categories, autistic teens and young adults had significantly lower rates of employment and the highest overall rates of no participation in any work or education.
For example, only 55 percent of young adults with autism had paid employment, while 86 percent of those with a speech or language impairment, 94 percent of those with a learning disability and 69 percent of those with mental retardation did.
The education picture was a little brighter. About 35 percent of kids with autism attended a two- or four-year college; 51 percent of those with a speech or language delay did so, while 40 percent of those with a learning disability and 18 percent of those with mental retardation did.
For lower-income autistic teens and young adults, participation rates were even lower.
An estimated one in 88 U.S. children has an autism spectrum disorder, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 50,000 youths with autism will turn 18 this year in the United States.
Peter Bell, executive vice president of programs and services for Autism Speaks and the father of a young adult with autism, said the transition to adulthood can be particularly difficult for the families of children with autism. During childhood, most services are centered in the educational system and children are entitled to receive a public education. In many states, special needs teens can continue to get some services through the schools until around age 20 or 21.
After that, parents have to seek help from the social services system, which is more fragmented and difficult to navigate. And yet, he added, the report is not all bleak.
"I was pleasantly surprised that about 35 percent went on after leaving high school to attend some form of college," Bell said. "I was told 16 years ago when my son was diagnosed that there was very little chance he would ever go to college. So the fact that over one-third of the autism population goes on to some form of education after school should say to a lot of parents, 'You shouldn't automatically assume your child is not going to go to college'."
His own 19-year-old son isn't attending college, but he does work at several jobs in their town, where he is a well-known and accepted part of the community, Bell added.
Autism Speaks has a toolkit to help teens with autism and their families make the transition out of high school.
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