Young Adults with Severe Autism Need Fewer Supports if Competitively Employed

Study Supports Policy of Employment First for Autistic Adults

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University published an additional analysis of an on-going study of employment outcomes using the Project SEARCH model for young adults who are significantly impacted by autism. The model is a partnership of local hospitals, schools, and the departments of vocational rehabilitation.

An earlier report of the model showed that young adults who enrolled in an intensive internship program for their final year of high school achieved high rates of competitive integrated employment (CIE) within one year of graduation – 73%, versus just 17% for those not enrolled. CIE is paid employment in a community business where wages are at least minimum wage and are the same as nondisabled workers performing similar tasks, and the employee with ASD interacts with other employees, including those who are not disabled.

What is remarkable about the high employment rate is the significant challenges faced by these young ASD adults. The adults studied had support needs ranging from limited support required consistently over time to extensive support required daily. They had medical conditions such as allergies, special dietary needs, and seizure disorders. Behaviors included aggression toward others, property destruction, stealing, self-injury, tantrums, wandering, inappropriate social interactions, and self-stimulation. They required significant prompts to learn tasks and to remain on task, demonstrated low reading and math literacy, and were inconsistently able to communicate basic wants and needs verbally. Few were able to engage in everyday problem solving, ask for help when needed, demonstrate personal safety skills, use public transportation, or demonstrate work appropriate social behaviors. They were in self-contained special education programs for the majority of their school day prior to graduation and were seeking a special education certificate of completion and not a standard diploma.

The newly released study found that these youth with CIE also required fewer intensive supports and services one year after graduation. They demonstrated improvement in all domains of independence whereas the control group not enrolled in the program demonstrated improvement in one domain only. The authors state the results provide evidence that employment not only provides a paycheck, but also therapeutic and educational benefits to individuals with severe ASD. They conclude that community-based employment training should move from research to practice, and that transition-aged youth and young adults with ASD would be well served by increasing their access to interventions that result in competitive employment.

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