NEW YORK - Young adults with autism are less likely to go to college or hold down a job than their peers with other types of disabilities, a new US study finds.
Researchers found that more than one-third of young adults with an autism spectrum disorder had not gotten a job or gone into higher education since high school. And that number was much higher compared with young adults with learning disabilities or other impairments.
It's estimated that about one in 88 US children has an autism spectrum disorder, or ASD.
That's up 78% from a decade ago -- which health officials attribute to better diagnosis, as well as broader definitions of what constitutes an ASD.
ASDs are a group of developmental brain disorders that hinder a person's ability to communicate and interact socially -- ranging from the severe cases of "classic" autism to the relatively mild form called Asperger's syndrome.
But while rates of ASD diagnoses are shooting up, researchers have not known all that much about how kids with the disorders fare after high school.
So for the new study, researchers collected data on 680 young US adults with an ASD, along with nearly 1,400 young people with learning disabilities, speech or language impairments or intellectual impairment.
All were between the ages of 19 and 23, and had been in special education programs when they were in school.
Overall, the study found, 35% of young adults with ASDs had not gone to school or held a job since high school.
That compared with only 7% of young adults with speech or language impairments, and 3% of those with learning disabilities. Even young people with intellectual impairments were faring better than the ASD group: one-quarter had not gone on to higher education or the workplace after high school.
The findings appear in the journal Pediatrics.
It's not surprising that many young adults with ASDs would struggle, according to Paul T. Shattuck, the lead researcher on the study.
"But I wasn't prepared for the magnitude of the effect," said Shattuck, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. "The gap between them and young people with other disabilities was striking."
Another important finding, Shattuck said, was that low-income adults with ASDs were at substantial risk.
Among young adults from families making under $25,000 a year, 55% had not worked or started higher education since high school.
That compared with 18% of those from families who made more than $75,000 a year.
"That's a huge difference," Shattuck said. The reasons for the gap are not clear from the study, he noted -- but it likely has something to do with access to services for people with ASDs.
Another reason, according to Shattuck, may be that higher-income families have more social connections, including people who could help their child find work or get into school.
The researchers estimate that in 2009, about 163,000 US children with an ASD were living below the poverty line.
‘Doesn't magically disappear'
There are some services available to help families and kids with ASDs prepare for life as an adult. Shattuck said that special ed programs should include, "as part of the package," some type of transitioning plan for the post-high school years.
"That's the goal anyway," he said. "The reality is, not every kids gets that, and the quality of (the service) will vary from place to place."
There is definitely a need for more research into services for young adults with ASDs, according to Shattuck's team -- particularly programs to help kids from low-income families.
The "popular image" associated with autism is the affected child, Shattuck noted.
"But autism doesn't magically disappear in adolescence," he said. "These kids grow up, and that's the age group we know the least about."