A recent article in the journal Pediatrics tries to offer parents of autistic children some information to answer these simple questions: “What will my child’s life be like as an adult? What are the chances for college and future employment” One of the effects of the recent heightened awareness about autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among physicians and parents is that many more cases are being diagnosed, especially milder ones. What happens to these children when they grow up? What are their chances for living a normal adult life?
The authors, from Washington University in St. Louis and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, used a standardized survey of 680 patients with ASD and their parents from 2007-2008. The design was simple. The authors looked at two useful markers of advancement in adult life — postsecondary education and employment. For comparison, they also looked at children who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities or speech impairments.
The results showed that, six years after leaving high school, 35% of children with ASD had attended college and 55% had held a paid job of some sort. But fully half of the children in the first two years after high school had no engagement at all with either education (college, junior college, or technical school) or employment. In this regard they fared worse than children carrying the diagnosis of speech and language impairment or learning disability. Poor children with ASD had the worse outcomes.
What can we learn from this? First, as usual, we need more information. Children with ASD are a very diverse group, ranging from mild to severe difficulties. We can’t lump them all together. Compared with the past, children with ASD receive more and better services. Yet it is clear we need to look at useful and effective ways to launch them into adult life.