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How do we help adults who have a 'childhood' disorder?

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Greg Boustead
22 July 2013

The estimated unemployment rate for adults with autism is a staggering 90 percent. And as we reported Friday, a new study suggests that a complex mix of social and psychological factors contribute to the success of the remaining 10 percent.

Read the full blog post here »

The overwhelming majority of adults with autism struggle with one of the primary hallmarks of adulthood: finding and maintaining a job.

Previous studies suggest that the situation is no better for so-called high-functioning individuals with milder forms of the disorder, and the hardships go beyond employment.

Often described as a childhood disorder, autism presents unique social and practical challenges as people grow up. Isolation and social detachment exacerbate existing deficits in the face of adult responsibilities. More than half of young adults with autism haven’t interacted with a friend for over a year, one study found.

The new study points to social support and individual motivation as the biggest factors promoting sustained employment. The authors recommend specialized career counseling in addition to general intervention beyond adolescence. Approximately 40 percent of young adults with autism in the U.S. receive no services whatsoever after high school graduation.

An active comments thread from a previous SFARI.org article about the challenges of adults with autism provides a snapshot — often in heartbreaking detail — of many of these struggles. These recurring narratives (about the inability to find or keep a job or to have a romantic relationship, or about “feeling lost and lonely” after graduation) offer an important context to the daunting statistics.

Some researchers hope that improved and earlier intervention for children with autism will help their transitions into adulthood. As more people are diagnosed and treated early on, future generations may face more fulfilling adulthoods.

Still, the situation raises important questions about how to better understand, treat and integrate into society a growing population of adults with autism.

What do you think?             

  • Aside from providing early intervention and better job services, how can autism researchers and clinicians better address the needs of adults with the disorder?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below. Or, to dig deeper, continue the conversation in the moderated SFARI Forum for researchers. Not yet a member? Learn how to register here.

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Name: Shain Neumeier
24 July 2013 - 1:09AM

If more studies could be done with the knowledge that we're not going away anytime soon, but that we need support (which is not the same as paternalism and which does not make us less), that would be awesome.

Name: Frank Kelly
24 July 2013 - 11:47PM

We need to experiment with techniques - things like ABA are probably too "low level" for adults with such challenges. If these folks have any chance of working they are probably pretty high functioning so immersive programs in something like RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) where they get to practice social interactions and get some feeling about Theory Of Mind and expectations in the workplace might work.

But the research still needs to be done and probably there are multiple techniques that will work.

Name: M Kelter
20 August 2013 - 1:35PM

As an adult on the spectrum, who is currently unemployed: it's great to see this being discussed. I don't have answers, but one thing I do know is that, as is pointed out here, autism is often considered a "childhood" disorder and this creates many misconceptions and distorted concepts regarding autistic adults. The diagnostic criteria...and discussions about what autism is, what it looks like...are generally based on studies of children. The problem is that these issues look quite different as a person grows and reacts to the world around them. Experiences can change the way a person thinks, the way a person copes, and so on...so there is just far too little information about what happens to autistics as they move out of childhood. Helping provide support for adults will first require understanding what their lives are like.


Name: Jeanette
18 May 2015 - 3:48AM

My oldest son has high functioning autism and is now 29. I have been actively involved with helping him find services. I have been lucky to be able to be a stay at home mother otherwise this would be a extremely difficult. Many jobs for peope with disabilities just serve to check off a box saying they have a job. We have a job developer who is helping us meet employers and help do a resume. Recreation is so important so they feel included, our son and another young man do adaptive kayaking and now are included with the regular paddlers. It helps their self esteem and their health as it gets them outside and they are mentors to younger children. So much more needs to be done starting looking at their unique trengths and building jobs around those instead of trying to fit a mold.

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