Longitudinal Trends in the Early Work Experiences of Youth with Autism in the U.S.
Objectives: Describe the paid work experiences of special education students with autism during high school, and determine how the prevalence of early work has changed across time relative to students with other types of disabilities.
Methods: We used secondary data from two related studies: the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2012 (NLTS2012). Both studies were designed to yield nationally representative estimates of the characteristics and experiences of youth who received special education services. Wave 2 of the NLTS2 (2002-2003) surveyed 600 students with autism ages 15-19 years who were in 9th grade or higher, and NLTS2012 (2012) surveyed 500. Both surveys asked students whether they did any work for and/or a school-sponsored job for pay within the past 12 months. Parents answered survey questions if youth were unable to respond. We report proportions and 95% confidence intervals for key variables. We tested for significant changes in early work experiences between cohorts.
Results: The 2012 cohort of adolescents in the special education autism category was less diverse (79% White), less impaired and had higher functional skills then the earlier cohort of students with autism. Approximately 34% of the recent autism cohort were reportedly unable to carry on a conversation, or had “a lot of trouble” with conversation compared to 54% of the previous cohort. Nearly 60% of recent autism cohort were able to get to places outside the home “pretty well” or “very well”, compared to 46% of the earlier cohort. However, the autism group was generally more impaired than students with ID, emotional disturbance, other health impairments, and those who did not have disabilities that impacted their education.
Students with autism had the lowest rate of paid work experiences (27%) during high school compared to students with ID (35%), emotional disturbance (47%), other health impairments (48%), and those who did not receive special education or accommodations (56%). Rates of early work experiences were not significantly different for students with autism between the two cohorts, compared to a significant decrease in early work for those with ID, emotional disturbance, or other health impairments.
Conclusions: Although exposure to early paid work is a key policy target in the US and internationally, rates of early work experiences for high school students with autism have not improved across the last decade. Students with autism had the lowest employment rate across disability comparison groups in this study. Providing early work experiences, and the supports to make them successful, are critically important because of their strong association with post-secondary employment.