More than 1 in 3 young adults with autism have no paid job experience or college or technical education nearly seven years after high school graduation, a study has found. That's a poorer showing than those with other disabilities, including those who are mentally handicapped, the researchers said.
With roughly half a million autistic children reaching adulthood in the next decade, experts say, it's an issue policymakers urgently need to address.
The study was done well before unemployment peaked from the recession. The situation today is tough even for young adults who don't have such limitations.
Ian Wells of Allentown, N.J., is 21, autistic and won't graduate from high school until next year. He is unlikely to attend college because of his autism. He wants a job but has only found unpaid internships and is currently working part time and unpaid as a worker at a fastener factory.
He's a hard worker, with good mechanical skills, but has trouble reading and speaking, said his mother, Barbara Wells. She said his difficulties understanding social cues and body language can make other people uncomfortable.
"I'm very afraid" about his prospects for ever finding long-term employment, she said. "It keeps me up at night."
The study, published online today in Pediatrics, was based on data from 2007-08. It found that within two years of leaving high school, more than half of those with autism had no job experience or college or technical education.
Things improved as they got older. Yet nearly seven years after high school, 35 percent of autistic young adults still had no paid employment or education beyond high school.
Those figures compare with 26 percent of mentally disabled young adults, 7 percent of young adults with speech and language problems, and 3 percent of those with learning disabilities.
Those with autism may fare worse because many also have each of the other disabilities studied.
The researchers analyzed data from a national study of children receiving special-education services, prepared for the U.S. Department of Education. About 2,000 young adults with one of four types of disabilities were involved, including 500 with autism.
It's the largest study to date on the topic and the results "are quite a cause for concern," said lead author Paul T. Shattuck, an assistant professor at Washington University's Brown School of Social Work in St. Louis.
"There is this wave of young children who have been diagnosed with autism who are aging toward adulthood. We're kind of setting ourselves up for a scary situation if we don't think about that and how we're going to help these folks and their families," Shattuck said.
Government data suggests that 1 in 88 U.S. children have autism, and there's evidence that the rate is rising.
Within the next 10 years, more than 500,000 children with autism will reach adulthood, said Peter H. Bell, vice president for programs and services at Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that helped pay for the study. "It's a huge, huge issue," Bell said. "It's only going to get worse."
Carol M. Schall, a policy specialist in special education, said the results confirm smaller studies showing difficulties facing children with autism as they move toward adulthood.
She is involved in research at Virginia Commonwealth University studying whether on-the-job training and teaching social cues to high school students with autism makes them more employable.
Children are taught a range of practical skills and appropriate behavior. "It takes a much higher degree of intensity for them to learn skills" than for other children, she said. Preliminary results show that this training has helped children with autism find and keep jobs, she said.