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Many Youths with Autism Not Employed or In College 2 Years After High School

Science Update

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Young adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are less likely to have a job or be enrolled in any type of postsecondary education when compared to peers with a speech/learning impairment or learning disability, according to a study partially funded by NIMH. Published in the June issue of Pediatrics, the findings emphasize the need to improve transition planning for students with ASD before they leave high school.


Past studies on post-high school activities of youths with ASD were limited by having relatively few participants, lacking adequate diversity in the study population, or studying a narrow set of outcomes. As a result, it was unclear if those studies gave accurate descriptions of the ASD youth population as a whole, and if so, how broadly any findings could be applied.

Using nationally representative data from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 , Paul Shattuck, Ph.D., of Washington University, and colleagues assessed the activities of about 1,900 youths identified as having autism, speech/language impairment, learning disability, or mental retardation between the years 2007-2008. Data were provided by the youths’ parents or guardians or from the youths themselves if they were able to understand and answer the survey questions.

All participants had previously received special education services and were no longer in high school.

Results of the Study

Compared to youths in other disability categories, those with ASD were less likely to have a job after high school. Youths with ASD were also less likely to be enrolled in any type of schooling than youths with speech/learning impairment or learning disability, but more likely than youths with mental retardation.

In the first 2 years after leaving high school, youths with ASD were at significant risk of being completely disengaged, meaning to not be employed or in any postsecondary education.

The participation rates, with rounded percentages, are summarized in the table below:

Disability Category

Youth is involved in…





Any 2- or 4-year college*





Any paid employment





No education or 





*Additional data on youths’ participation in vocational or technical education showed a similar distribution.

Youths from low-income families were much more likely to become disengaged, regardless of the severity of their disability. More impaired youths were also at greater risk of disengagement.


The results indicate that young adults with ASD experience unique challenges in finding work or enrolling in appropriate educational opportunities after leaving high school. In a related paper, also partially supported by NIMH funding, Dr. Shattuck noted that “the evidence base on services for adults with ASD is inadequate for informing policy and program decisions to meet the needs of this growing population.”

In this context, the researchers emphasized the need to improve transition planning for youths with ASD or other special education needs as they prepare to leave high school.

What’s Next

According to the researchers, as more and more children are diagnosed with ASD, the demand for specialized adult services, jobs, and education will also continue to grow. Supporting targeted initiatives such as JobTIPS and further research on how to reduce or prevent disengagement will help inform efforts to better serve this population.


Shattuck PT, Narendorf SC, Cooper B, Sterzing PR, Wagner M, Taylor JL. Postsecondary Education and Employment Among Youth With an Autism Spectrum Disorder . Pediatrics. 2012 Jun;129(6):1042-9. Epub 2012 May 14. PubMed PMID: 22585766; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3362908. 

Shattuck PT, Roux AM, Hudson LE, Taylor JL, Maenner MJ, Trani JF. Services for adults with an autism spectrum disorder . Can J Psychiatry. 2012 May;57(5):284-91. PubMed PMID: 22546060.

Related funding: R01-MH086489