When the School Bus Stops Coming: The Employment Dilemma for Adults with Autism
“Charles Vaughn” devours each issue of Discover and Scientific American as son as the magazines land in his mailbox. Without hesitation he can tell you that the speed of light is 186 thousand miles per second . He multiplies gigantic numbers for fun . With Charles ’ high school graduation aproaching in June, his parents should be thrilled about their eldest son ’s prospects. Instead, they are terified . Charles is autistic . Now 21, he has difficulty starting a conversation .
Even though he has an above average I.Q., he has not learned to drive and he prefers to spend his free time watching cartoons on T.V. Until this year, he has received much of the help he needs through school under a federal law that allows people with disabilities to continue their public education until the year in which they turn 21. Through the school, he has started taking a computer course at the local community college, and he has a part-time job inputting at a communications company. But all that could end in June, when he dons a cap and gown and accepts his high school diploma. When Charles Vaughn turned 21 on January 11, he walked into a bureaucratic black hole. Charles lives in a state that provides no services for autistic adults. (Hillary Waldman, The Hartford Courant, February 16, 2006).
One of the greatest hoaxes a person can play is to give someone the expectation that life will be better following an exercise that requires significant investment in effort, time and money, and then inform him at the end that they knew all along that it really wouldn’t work out. Unfortunately, this hoax is played hundreds of thousands of times on people with autism, their families and the communities in which they live.
America has one of the best public education systems in the world. It promises to prepare its children to be able to live the American Dream, yet for people with autism that promise is rarely, if ever, realized. After years of struggling through their education years, most adults with autism find themselves without any opportunity to enjoy gainful employment or to live and recreate to their capacity in their communities (Holmes and Shore, 2005).
The problem lies in two areas: the lack of proper preparation for work during the education years and the lack of laws and funding to entitle adults with disabilities to the same rights established for children under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004). Both areas must be addressed immediately, if America is to stem the tide of unemployment among its citizens with disabilities.
It is a generally accepted fact that more than 75% of Americans with disabilities are unemployed (Gerhardt and Holmes, 2004). It also has been established that if adults with autism do not find employment after their educational training, they have a 70% chance of not being gainfully employed throughout their life (Rebuck, 2006). Further, some studies have revealed that only 6% of people with autism spectrum disorder have a full-time job (National Autism Society, 2006). The remainder of individuals with autism are either unemployed or under-employed (Holmes, 1998).
The dilemma for adults with autism is that, unlike the entitlements they have for “an appropriate education” under the IDEA, once they leave the education system, there are no seamless entitlements. There are some federal and state procurements that might enable a modicum of services for adults, but they do not exist in the quantity and quality necessary for most adults with autism.
The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) is responsible for serving adults with autism, but currently is serving fewer than 2,000 (Dew and Allan, 2007). If a person is eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Income (SS DI), they will receive monthly funds that can be used to support their living and employment arrangements. However, these funds are minimal (averaging $400 per month) and not nearly enough to afford an appropriate employment opportunity, let alone an appropriate living arrangement (Kaplin and Moore, 2000).
If a person is eligible for Medicaid funds, which have asset restrictions (less than $2,000 in assets) and, frequently, I.Q. restrictions (less than or equal to 70 I.Q.), they can be placed on a waiting list for adult services—services that may or may not be appropriate for their needs and may take years to acquire. Further, utilizing intelligence quotients for eligibility is ill conceived when it comes to autism. The most significant deficit many people with autism have is in the area of social skill development. A high I.Q. with low social skills (social quotient) leaves an individual severely compromised in the adult world.
Over the years it has been a struggle to get autism recognized as a unique and distinct disability from mental retardation. In fact, it was included under the Developmental Disabilities Act well over two decades ago. Yet most states continue to have departments or divisions of mental retardation servicing people with autism, but only if they have an I.Q. of less than 70, leaving many ineligible for services. This incongruity must be remedied to enable more advanced adults with autism to be fully productive in life.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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