By Serena Gordon
WEDNESDAY, April 24, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- There's a lot of news about the dramatic rise in the number of children with autism and the services available to them, but less attention has been paid to what happens when those kids grow up.
Now, a new study suggests that finding a job can be a struggle, and just how much of a struggle it is can vary widely from state to state.
For example, the difference between neighboring states New Jersey and Pennsylvania was stark. In Pennsylvania, about 90% of people eligible for vocational rehabilitation received those services. But in New Jersey, only half of the people who were eligible got vocational services, the researchers said.
When it came to providing services in high school, only about 10% of teens with autism started vocational rehabilitation in Montana. In Oklahoma, that number was 77%.
"We found tremendous variations from state to state across a number of indicators, including whether youth with autism were receiving vocational rehabilitation, if they received those services in high school, and employment status," said study author Anne Roux, a research scientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Receiving those services was no guarantee of a job, though. In some states, less than one-third of young people with autism who received vocational rehabilitation had gotten a job.
Yet, not all the news was disappointing. Four states -- Alabama, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington -- seemed to do better helping young people with autism find work. Those states averaged a higher than 70% employment rate for folks with autism who had received vocational rehabilitation services, the study found.
Those successes, Roux said, may provide a template for other states to learn what works and what doesn't.
"Theoretically, we can learn from these higher-performing states. What is it that they're doing differently?" she said.
But the researchers don't yet know why these states did better. She said it's possible that they may be serving fewer kids with autism, or they may be spending more money. It's also possible that they may be concentrating their resources on a particular group of people with autism, such as those on the more severe end of the autism spectrum.
State vocational rehabilitation agencies provide services for people with disabilities, including people with autism spectrum disorders. However, not everyone with an autism spectrum disorder qualifies for services, the study authors noted.
Vocational rehabilitation helps people prepare for, find and keep jobs. But the exact services provided varies by state, according to Roux. She said these programs often aren't modified to provide specific guidance for people with autism.
The study included data on almost 36,000 young people with autism who were between the ages of 14 and 24. The study focused on the period from 2014 to 2016.
The findings were published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
David Kearon is director of adult services for Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization. He said, "We know that people with autism are terribly underemployed and unemployed. We also know that people with autism, in many cases, have unique needs and unique skills that would benefit from autism-specific vocational rehabilitation and training."
Kearon explained that as kids with autism age out of the education system, they often have trouble connecting to the services available to them as adults. And that means it's important for teens to be able to access vocational rehabilitation in secondary school.
"It seems that those states that engage with autistic teens at younger ages may have better outcomes," Kearon said.
He added that this study was a good first step toward looking at why services seem to vary so widely between states.
"We have the opportunity to learn from the states that did well and learn from their practices, because we don't really know yet what the root causes of the differences from state-to-state are," Kearon said.
Visit Autism Speaks for more on vocational rehabilitation for those with autism.
SOURCES: Anne Roux, M.P.H., research scientist, Drexel University, Philadelphia; David Kearon, director, adult services, Autism Speaks; Oct. 24, 2018, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, online
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