Young Adults With Autism Less Likely to Have Jobs, Live Independently

Surveys looked at life after high school for 20-somethings with various disorders

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By Brenda Goodman
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 18 (HealthDay News) -- Young adults with autism are less likely to find work or live on their own than their peers with other kinds of disabilities, two new studies show.

The studies detailed the fates of a national sample of 20-somethings who had received special-education services in high school.

The first study focused on employment. Researchers found that only about half of those with autism had ever held a job since high school, and only about a third were currently working.

Even worse, young adults on the autism spectrum were less likely to be getting a paycheck than people the same age who had other kinds of disabilities. More than 80 percent of those with speech and language difficulties reported having at least one job, for example, while 62 percent of those with intellectual disabilities had ever been employed.

When kids with autism did find work, they made less money. On average, young adults with autism earned $8.10 an hour, while those with other kinds of impairments -- including low IQs, learning disabilities, and trouble speaking and communicating -- were paid between $11 and $12 an hour.

The second study focused on living arrangements. Researchers found that only 17 percent of young adults with autism, who were between 21 and 25 years old, had ever lived on their own.

By comparison, 66 percent of kids with learning disabilities like dyslexia had lived by themselves, as had 62 percent of those who were emotionally disturbed, a category that includes anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and eating disorders. Even those labeled as intellectually disabled, meaning they had a low IQ and slower mental processing, were about twice as likely to have lived on their own as young adults with autism.

"These studies tend to be kind of depressing," said study author Paul Shattuck, an associate professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health, in Philadelphia. "But I want to point out that at every level of functioning in our studies, there are successes."

Shattuck said even among those with autism who are more severely impaired -- they have no language skills and impaired functioning of thinking ability -- "there are success stories, so our job is to increase the success rate."

Shattuck said other studies have shown that getting kids with autism involved in social clubs, extracurricular activities and community service in high school can increase their chances of having friends and employment after they graduate. Internships and after-school jobs are key too.

"The best predictor of getting a job after high school is getting a job in high school," he said. "There's no substitute for real-world experience."

The studies, which were both published Aug. 30 in the journal Autism, drew on data collected in a 10-year nationwide study of teens who received special-education services during high school.

The focus of the research was a group of 620 kids with autism spectrum disorders. They were compared to 450 kids with intellectual disabilities, 410 kids with learning disabilities and 380 with emotional disturbances. Parents and, when possible, the young adults themselves, answered questions about their status every two years from 2000 through 2009.

An expert who wasn't involved in the studies praised the research, saying it lines up with what he sees in his practice.

"I think these articles are right on target," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.

Even though kids with autism can be intelligent and sometimes function very well, they can have trouble navigating social situations that require tact and deference, Hilfer said.

"They have more difficulty relating to the people around them," he said. "They have trouble reading cues and, as a result of all that, staying in a job or having jobs offered to them that are commensurate with their skill set is sometimes a little tricky."

Hilfer said kids with autism require intensive tutoring, coaching and mentoring to help them find and keep jobs.