The transition to adulthood represents a particularly vulnerable time for youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as the entitlements of the children’s service system end and families encounter fragmented systems of care (Friedman, Warfield, & Parish, 2013). Post-secondary transition can be defined as the process by which students culminate their high school experiences and enter adulthood. For students with severe disabilities who have significant learning challenges, their post-secondary goal may be to obtain competitive employment. The goal of this paper is to examine a post-secondary employment trends and outcomes for individuals with autism.
Individuals with autism spectrum disorder face a variety of challenges in gaining and maintaining paid employment, despite their willingness to work. Historically, adults with autism are unlikely to be gainfully employed. Rutter, Greenfeld, & Lockyer (1967) conducted a study on 63 individuals who were diagnosed with autism in the 1950s. When these individuals with autism reached the age of adulthood, only three had paid jobs, meaning 96% were unemployed. Since then, little progress has been made. In 1992, Kobayashi & Murata conducted a study on 187 young adults with autism. Of the 187 adults interviewed in 1992, only one fourth or 75% were unemployed. Although the rates of unemployment among individuals with autism in the 1950s and 1990s are quite alarming, when comparing these two studies to modern day statistics, employment rates are showing some improvement.
At present, employment rates among individuals with autism are inconsistent across different studies. In a recent study, Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey (2009) found that 37% of individuals with autism spectrum disorder had been employed for 12 months or more when they were surveyed four years after their high school exit. Furthermore, data collected from the National Longitudinal Transition Survey-2 (NLTS-2) in 2011 indicate that 15% of adults with autism held paid employment after leaving high school.
While there are some positive trends in individuals with autism holding competitive employment positions, especially since the 1950s, individuals with autism are still faced with many unique challenges. Those with an autism diagnosis are less likely to be employed than individuals with other disabilities, such as learning disabilities, intellectual disability, or speech and language impairment (Shattuck, Narendorf, Cooper, Sterzing, Wagner, & Taylor, 2012). In the first wave of data collected in the NLTS-2, only 15% of young adults with autism were employed compared to 54% of individuals with other disabilities who were employed (Cameto, 2003)
There are a variety of studies that have documented the difficulty that individuals with autism have when maintaining employment due to issues that may be inherent to their disability. Individuals with autism may lose their job because of social problems or behavioral issues (Hurlbutt & Chalmers, 2004; Unger, 1999). Chiang, Cheung, Li, & Tsai (2013) also found that social communication deficits and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior in individuals with autism adversely affected their opportunity to enter gainful employment. This is a particularly challenging hurdle for individuals with autism to overcome, as the very classification of autism spectrum disorder typically includes difficulty in communication and stereotypic behavior. Even if individuals with autism are employed, it is more challenging for these individuals to maintain their employment status due to issues surrounding their disability.
Social skills are vital to be able to interact with customers and co-workers and maintain employment. Special education teachers may refer to social skills in the workplace as the “soft skills” of work. Individuals with autism are held to similar standards as individuals without disabilities when in the work force. For example, it would be expected for any individual (with or without autism) to greet his/her co-workers and interact with his/her boss on a regular basis. Many individuals with autism have communication difficulties, despite the importance of social skills across all domains of functioning. One study found that for individuals with autism, having a high degree of social skills made it 5.4 times more likely for them to obtain competitive employment, when other factors were held constant (Chiang et al., 2013). This notion stresses the importance of focusing on social skill development for students with autism while they are still in high school, as social skills could make all the difference in terms of employability for individuals with autism.
Another factor that effected the likelihood of individuals with autism obtaining gainful employment was the number of years that had passed since their high school graduation. This theme was found in many research articles that were reviewed. Typically, the first two years proceeding high school graduation is the time period in which individuals with autism are least likely to have gainful employment. Cameto (2003) found that individuals with autism had an employment rate of 15% the first year after high school. Similarly, Taylor and Seltzer (2011) discovered that young adults with autism who had recently graduated from high school had competitive employment rates of 17%. In one study, four years had passed since individuals with autism had graduated from high school and their rate of employment was 37% (Newman et al., 2009). Six years after individuals with autism graduated high school, 55% of these individuals had remained gainfully employed (Shattuck et al., 2012). These findings are particularly interesting because one may believe that at the culmination of high school, individuals with autism are best equipped to apply for a job, participate in a job interview, or have an updated resume of prior work experiences while in high school. Despite this idea, these studies indicate that as years pass since high school graduation, individuals with autism are more likely to enter competitive employment, though it is unclear why.
Even if individuals with autism are competitively employed, their rate of pay is below that of their typical peers’. In 2007, the Department of Labor in the United States reported that the minimum hourly wage was $8.03; however, the average rate of pay per hour for individuals with autism was $7.90, which is below the national hourly wage (Chiang et al., 2013). Despite the difficulty in obtaining competitive employment due to social deficits or behavioral problems, individuals with autism do not always earn the same rate of pay for their work as their typical peers.
Although more individuals with autism are employed today than ever before, our work is not done. Overall, communities must value the importance of post-secondary employment for individuals with autism and treat them fairly. As a society, we must embrace the unique individuality of individuals with autism and all disabilities, and enable and encourage these individuals to enter competitive employment. When individuals with autism are gainfully employed, there are endless benefits for all.
Sean T. Miller, MA, is a student in the Educational Leadership program at Stony Brook University. Lauren E. Andersen, MA, is a Doctoral Candidate in Intellectual Disability and Autism at Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information about this article, contact Sean Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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