Job Market Tough for Young Adults With Autism

But strategies can help individuals learn job skills and prepare for the workforce

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Oct. 27 (HealthDay News) -- More children are being diagnosed with autism than ever before and now many of these children are graduating from high school and entering, or at least trying to enter, the workforce.

Unfortunately, this critical crossroads is precisely the time that supportive services for this population tend to peter out.

"What we're seeing now is this group of adults with the autism diagnosis who have been more empowered and supported than ever before, but they're leaving behind the school structure and special-ed structure," said Scott Standifer, a clinical associate professor at the University of Missouri's School of Health Professions. "The system of adult disability support is very different, so they're having trouble figuring out and making that transition. The world of work is not the same as the world of school."

The result? People with autism have higher rates of unemployment and, when they do work, tend to earn less.

According to a fact sheet compiled by Standifer based on data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources, less than one-third of people with a disability aged 16 to 65 were working in 2010, compared with about two-thirds of people without a disability. And people with autism were only about half as likely to be working as people with disabilities in general (33 percent compared with 59 percent).

One study found that almost 40 percent of young adults with autism get no medical, mental health or case management services to help them make the transition into adulthood.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one in 110 children in the United States has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems with language and social interactions.

It is these communication issues that may pose the greatest obstacle for adults with autism both to find a job and to keep it, Standifer noted.

"Autism doesn't qualitatively change when you hit adulthood. You've got the same issue with reading social signals, with understanding instructions," said Standifer, whose office provides training and consultation to State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies. "We forget how important social relationships are in maintaining employment."

For instance, one of the most trying parts of the workday for an individual with autism is the lunch break and its almost mandatory socializing requirement. "There's no script. [Individuals with autism] don't know what to do," said Standifer, who organizes an annual "Autism Works" conference.

But even something as mundane as a stapler missing off a desk can also upset a person with autism, who then may not have the skills to express their frustration or confusion.

Families of people with autism as well as employers and co-workers can all help to make the employment experience a positive one for these individuals. Here are some tips:

  • Families should start preparing for their teens' transition into adulthood and the work force well in advance, perhaps even as much as two or three years before graduation. "People with autism are often so anchored in routines that it is important to have new, productive routines in place for them well before they hit graduation and leave school behind," Standifer said.
  • Find a job that matches their more general abilities and strengths. Although it's hard to generalize, people with autism often do well doing gardening, simple bookkeeping, merchandising (such as folding or organizing clothes in a department store), as well as in library and school settings, said Charles Archer, CEO of the Evelyn Douglin Center for Serving People in Need, in Brooklyn, N.Y., an organization that helps people with disabilities live independently.
  • Take advantage of local vocational rehabilitation counselors, more of whom are cropping up all over the country, Standifer said.
  • Find jobs with consistent routines. "Individuals with autism need a workplace that is structured, that's non-judgmental, that provides ongoing training and very, very strong levels of consistency either in work and/or communication," said Archer.
  • Create accessible work environments. This might include providing written instructions for a task rather than verbal ones.

More information

Autism Speaks has a transition toolkit for young adults with autism.

SOURCES: Scott Standifer, Ph.D., clinical associate professor, School of Health Professions, University of Missouri-Columbia; Charles A. Archer, CEO, Evelyn Douglin Center for Serving People in Need, Inc. (EDCSPIN), Brooklyn, N.Y.; University of Missouri, news release, Oct. 11, 2011

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