ASD Research – Education, Employment, and the Societal Experience

Learning about the current experience of people with ASD in broader society is a critical step in identifying and understanding the particular barriers or challenges these individuals face, and developing strategies to achieve greater integration and acceptance. This is where the other side of ASD research comes in: social research, as opposed to scientific. In this area of study, researchers investigate a wide variety of social matters among individuals with ASD, including academic performance and unemployment rates, thus building a more detailed picture of the societal experience of people with ASD, and compiling valuable hard data for use by advocacy groups, health professionals and caregivers, and policy makers.

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest barriers faced by people with ASD are in the areas of education and employment, and it is on these two categories that a great deal of social ASD research has focused thus far.

An area of increasing preoccupation for ASD social researchers is high school education, as these years mark the beginning of the transition to adulthood and often set the pattern for how adult life will unfold. To date, the picture for high school students with ASD is far from ideal. In a recent study led by Dr. Veronica Fleury and published by the Hammill Institute on Disabilities, researchers make the connection between low post-secondary enrollment among students with ASD (current college enrollment for ASD students ranks among the third lowest in all 11 disability categories), and the education they receive during their high school years, with particular reference to participation and inclusion.

Currently, though 84% of students with ASD attend a regular public high school, they take only one third of their courses in a general education classroom, and of these courses, only 36% are in academic subjects. To help combat this reduced level of participation, which is due to various factors such as social communication differences in students with ASD, the researchers propose increased access to the general education curriculum, to be facilitated by the appropriate instructional strategies and support. The possible strategies and instructional interventions detailed by the researchers provide valuable information for policy makers and educators alike as the school system works to broaden its responsiveness to the unique needs of students with ASD.

In 2012, a groundbreaking study revealing the barriers to employment faced by young adults with ASD was published in the journal Pediatrics. Led by Dr. Paul Shattuck of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, the study examined nine years worth of collected data about adolescents enrolled in special education, including young people with ASD, as well as adolescents with intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, and speech and language impairments.

Shattuck’s findings were striking. The adolescents with ASD had substantially lower employment rates than individuals in the other three categories of disability. Furthermore, for the first two years after high school, individuals with ASD had more than a 50% chance of being unemployed or uninvolved in higher education, and for the first six years after high school, 35% of ASD youth were completely disengaged from either employment or education. And for youth from lower-income backgrounds, these rates of disengagement were even higher.

Shattuck’s study was an important wake-up call, highlighting the lack of services for adults (as opposed to children) with ASD, and revealing how little is actually known about what life for adults with ASD is really like. In recognition of its contributions to advancing the cause of ASD advocacy, Autism Speaks named the study as one of the “Top Ten Autism Research Advances of 2012”.

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