By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Program improves employment prospects for young adults with autism

by in Medicine.

The Autism Awareness Walk 2013 in New Delhi. AFP/Getty Images/Prakash Singh

The Autism Awareness Walk 2013 in New Delhi. AFP/Getty Images/Prakash Singh

Attaining stable employment has traditionally been difficult for young adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A new study reports that with the proper training and support, however, these youths can successfully transition from school to work at higher rates than they are given credit for.

People with ASD typically have social deficits, communication problems, and fixed or repetitive behaviors and interests. Only about 30% of them find employment. A 2012 review suggested that several factors could be related to their low participation in the work force, including severity of the disorder, co-occurring behavioral or psychological problems, limited language and cognitive abilities, and poor social skills. The current study, published Monday in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, found that enrolling high school students with ASD in an internship-like job-training program could have a positive effect on their long-term employment prospects.

In concert with two local hospitals, researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University provided 24 students with ASD with nine months of intensive job training through a program called “Project SEARCH with Autism Supports.” An additional 16 students with ASD were enrolled in a control group for comparison purposes, and did not participate in the program. All of the participants were 18 to 21 years old and were able to dress, wash and feed themselves without help.

During their final year of high school, the students in the treatment group interned between 20 and 40 hours per week at a hospital in Richmond, Va., where they received on-the-job coaching and life skills training. The hospital staff and educational supervisors were also trained in applied behavior analysis, a teaching strategy that has proven successful for children and adolescents with ASD. The students worked in several departments, including neonatal and pediatric intensive care, diabetic wellness, the pharmacy, coronary care, environmental care, and ambulatory services.

After completing the program, 87.5% of young adults with ASD achieved employment, compared to only 6.3% of those in the control group. Furthermore, the students in the treatment group were able to maintain their employment three months after the program was over, and their wages were 24% above the minimum wage in Virginia at the time of the study.

The researchers attributed much of the success of the project to the collaborative effort between the public school system, hospital staff, university, and other partners. They did, however, note a number of limitations with the study.

For one thing, the researchers had little interaction with the students in the control group, who received the standard set of special education services at their high schools, making it difficult to pinpoint a reason for their low employment rates. In addition, as students with minimal ability to care for themselves were excluded from the study, the results are limited to higher-functioning individuals. Finally, the study did not include a cost-benefit analysis, so the program’s feasibility is still under question, and several funding and bureaucratic barriers may prevent it from being implemented on a large scale.

Nonetheless, the study demonstrates that children with ASD can indeed grow up to achieve meaningful employment and independence when provided with the appropriate support early on. The researchers plan to follow up with the participants after 12 and 24 months to see how the results hold over time.