More than 3.5 million people in the United States are affected by autism spectrum disorder. After finishing high school, many of them don’t receive the resources they need to succeed in college or the workforce.
After graduating from high school, young adults with autism are far less likely than their peers to find paid employment, according to researchers.
“Not only was the employment rate low for young people with ASDs when compared with young adults with other disabilities, but pay for jobs – if they got them – was significantly lower compared to young adults with other types of disabilities,” said Anne M. Roux, senior research coordinator at the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute.
Bradford Hulcher, program director of the Autism Society of Central Virginia, has seen how difficult it is for those with autism to land a job. Only one in every five adults with autism spectrum disorder holds a full-time job, she said.
“No matter where a person is on the spectrum, a person is going to struggle with social skills and communication. Even if they are highly intelligent, they may not be good communicators and have social skills,” Hulcher said.
“Knowing when it’s okay and who it’s okay to say certain things to at work is a big deal, and people on the spectrum might not be able to discern this. This can set them apart in a work environment – and work environments are usually social.”
Virginia ranks low in funding
Another issue, advocates for people with autism say, is government funding for programs to assist families with children who have developmental disabilities. Virginia ranks 49th among the states in providing services and support to individuals with disabilities.
One example is the Medicaid waiver program, which is available to families with intellectual disabilities based on financial need. The waiver system operates on a first-come, first-serve basis; because of lack of funding, Hulcher said, many families needing help don’t get it.
“Our General Assembly, compared to other state governments, ranks 49th in allocating funding for those who need support from the community,” Hulcher said. “Right now, there are almost 9,000 people on the waiting list for Medicaid waivers.”
Autism affects 1 in 68 children
Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said the prevalence of autism in the U.S. more than doubled from 2000 to 2010.
Autism is defined as a lifelong neurological developmental disability. It is known as a spectrum disorder, meaning that it exists on a continuum with a combination of symptoms. Those on the spectrum can range from low functioning to high functioning.
About one in 68 children is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The primary characteristics for a medical diagnosis are impairment in social communication and interaction. However, the disorder can vary from person to person and affects people on the spectrum differently. Those on the lower-functioning side can often be entirely non-verbal and have problems sleeping or sensory challenges such as an aversion to touch.
Asperger’s syndrome, while known as a separate disorder, is widely considered a milder form of autism. Asperger’s has less severe symptoms and often affects people’s social and communication skills while their intelligence and language development remain the same. Famous individuals with Asperger’s include Albert Einstein and Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook.
A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reported that among people with developmental disabilities, those with autism spectrum disorder have the worst employment outcomes in the immediate years following high school.
Only about half of autistic young adults have worked for pay outside the home since leaving high school. They earned an average of $8.10 per hour – significantly less than comparison groups, according to the study, which was conducted by Anne Roux and other researchers at Washington University in St. Louis.
Help is available, if you know where to look
Many high schools and families of autistic children are unaware of the resources that can help young adults with autism transition into the workforce and into college.
Help is available, for instance, from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. With state and federal funding, the department provides services such as vocational training and assistance in attending post-secondary education for Virginians with autism and other disabilities.
Richard Kriner, the agency’s autism research coordinator, works closely with families and individuals with developmental disabilities. Through the transition program offered by the department, Kriner and other experts there develop an individualized plan for each student.
“As a rule, we can start working with folks and open up cases around age 16, while they are still in school,” Kriner said. “As a matter of fact, that is the best practice – to work with folks before they exit the school system.”
Kriner said the level of involvement will vary on a case-by-case basis, depending on the extent of each individual's disability. In some cases, such as with Asperger’s syndrome, the best course of action could be continuing on to college.
“Academically, they are doing really well in school, but there are more soft skills that they might struggle with,” Kriner said. “Autism, being a neurological condition, has varying areas of challenges like social skills, communication or, in the area of executive functioning, where you plan and organize.”
In such cases, the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services may simply provide guidance by educating clients about services available to them at a university. Other cases may require a more hands-on approach.
“On the flip side, we may have somebody who is an ID (intellectual disability) and autism diagnosis,” Kriner said. “They have more challenges. So possibly they could have communication and behavior challenges that are more significant to that transition to adulthood.”
With that diagnosis, the department usually will get involved early on, Kriner said. To help such individuals successfully transition from school to a job, the agency will start working with a vocational therapist and identifying each client’s strengths.
Project SEARCH: a gateway to employment
Project SEARCH is a transition program available to young adults who have been diagnosed as having an intellectual or developmental disability and autism. The program helps students develop skills in the workplace, focusing on communication and workplace professionalism, while interning at entry-level jobs in hospitals.
Project SEARCH began at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in 1996. It has since expanded to more than 300 sites across the U.S. and to other countries. Project SEARCH operates in the Richmond area, Hampton Roads, Northern Virginia, Roanoke and other areas of Virginia.
Kriner was involved in Project SEARCH before joining the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services. He said Project SEARCH has a high success rate helping individuals transition into paid jobs.
“After the nine months, at the end of the program, the hospital offered the students jobs,” Kriner said. “They transitioned into jobs where they were making $9-10 an hour, some of them full time.”
That is an impressive statistic, considering that recent reports show that just over half of young adults with autism spectrum disorder worked in a paid job outside the home in the eight years following high school.
The goal now, Kriner said, is getting ahead of the “big wave” – the increasing number of children diagnosed with autism over the past decade, as they finish high school and enter adulthood.
More - Here are resources in Virginia for people with autism.
The Department of Aging and Rehabilitative Services [www.vadars.org]: With 53 offices around the state, this agency provides employment services, community-based services, assistive technology and disability determination.
Postsecondary Education Rehabilitation Transition Program [www.wwrc.net/pert.htm]: In this state-funded program, high school-age students live for about two weeks in dormitories on the campus of the Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville. During their stay, students receive vocational counseling and job training in their area of interest. They also learn skills for successful independent living.
Project SEARCH [http://projectsearch.us/]: In this transition-to-work project, high school students with developmental disabilities intern at a hospital for their senior year. Hospitals throughout the world participate. In Virginia, the program has been implemented by the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System, the Richmond and Chesterfield public schools, and hospitals in Norfolk, Hampton, Portsmouth, Alexandria, Williamsburg and several other localities.
VCU Autism Center for Excellence [www.vcuautismcenter.org]: The center is operated by Virginia Commonwealth University receives funding from state government. It provides training and research related to autism spectrum disorder. The center also works with school divisions.