Employment may lead to improvement in autism symptoms

Jennifer Wetzel, Vanderbilt University

More independent work environments may lead to reductions in autism symptoms and improve daily living in adults with the disorder, according to a new study released in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Researchers at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison collaborated with Vanderbilt University to examine 153 adults with autism and found that greater vocational independence and engagement led to improvements in core features of autism, other problem behaviors and ability to take care of oneself.

“We found that if you put the person with autism in a more independent vocational placement, this led to measurable improvements in their behaviors and daily living skills overall,” said lead author Julie Lounds Taylor, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics and Special Education and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator. Taylor completed a postdoctoral training fellowship in intellectual and developmental disability research at the Waisman Center under the mentorship of Marsha R. Mailick, PhD, Waisman Center Director. “One core value in the disability community and at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is placing people with disabilities in the most inclusive environments possible. In addition, this study gives us evidence that increasing the level of independence in an employment or vocational setting can lead to improvements in autism symptoms and other associated behaviors.”

Participants averaged 30 years of age and were part of a larger longitudinal study on adolescents and adults with autism. Data were collected at two time points separated by 5.5 years.

In collaboration with Waisman Center investigators Marsha R. Mailick, PhD and Leann Smith, PhD, Taylor looked at such autism symptoms as restricted interests, repetitive behaviors, communication impairments and difficulties with social interactions and found the degree of independence in vocational activities was uniquely related to subsequent changes in autism symptoms, other problem behaviors and activities of daily living.

The results provide preliminary evidence that employment may be therapeutic in the development of adults with autism. Similar to typically developing adults, vocational activities may serve as a mechanism for providing cognitive and social stimulations and enhance well-being and quality of life.

“The majority of research on autism has focused on early childhood, but autism is a lifelong disorder with impairments that limit quality of life throughout adulthood,” Taylor said. “Given the prevalence of autism, now one in 88 children, we must continue to examine the factors that promote well-being and quality of life for adults with autism and other disabilities as a whole.”

Underemployment is a common phenomenon among adults with autism, the authors noted, with around 50 percent of adults with autism primarily spending their days with little community contact and in segregated work or activity settings.

Taylor says this research highlights the importance of employment programs for adults with autism and stresses the need for more intervention programming for this population.

This research was supported by grants from Autism Speaks, the National Institute on Aging (Grant No. R01 AG08768) and the National Institute of Mental Health (Grant No. K01 MH92598), with core support provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (Grant Nos. P30 HD15052; P30 HD03352) and the National Center for Research Resources (Grant No. 1 UL1 RR024975).