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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Career assistance

by  /  6 September 2013

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

There are few career services for young people with autism once they graduate from high school, which contributes to an unemployment rate as high as 90 percent among adults with the disorder.

A new study offers some ways to mitigate these odds somewhat: Like any high school or college student, those with autism who do internships and receive career advice also improve their chances of landing a job.

After completing a nine-month high school program of rotating internships, 21 of 24 students with autism found jobs compared with 1 of 16 who did not do internships or receive extra career support, according to the study, published 27 July in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Vocational education programs have seen an influx of applicants with autism in recent years. However, many of the graduates have not been able to find jobs.

The new study tracked the trajectory of 24 high school seniors in Richmond, Virginia, who participated in Project SEARCH plus ASD Supports, an internship program initially developed at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital for children with developmental disabilities. The program matches students who have autism with local employers such as hospitals and banks, and provides training and support along the way.

All of the students were between 18 and 21 years old and independent enough to care for themselves, preparing their own meals and maintaining good hygiene, for example. Some of them had behavioral problems, such as throwing tantrums, and medical issues, including depression, but it did not prevent them from interning.

The students completed three ten-week internships, learning marketable skills such as how to stock shelves and clean equipment. They also attended classes to learn practical skills, such as taking public transportation to work or when to call in sick or ask a coworker for assistance.

The teachers regularly met with the students’ internship supervisors, giving the supervisors the opportunity to swap ideas about how to work with the interns.

The control group of 16 students with autism did not have any internships or additional career support. The teachers worked with them on their individualized education programs, which are personalized plans for students with disabilities mandated by the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Three months after the program ended, 21 of the 24 students who received career support found jobs that earned at least $9 an hour, 24 percent higher than the minimum wage of $7.25. They also needed significantly less guidance from adults than the controls did, suggesting that employment improves independence. 

Implementing these sorts of programs may help young adults with autism, even those with behavioral problems, begin and sustain a career, the researchers say.