Saturday, 13 June 2015

Autism, higher education and employment: what happens long-term?

Note: I wish I knew who to attribute this fantastic picture to.
I want to draw your attention to the paper by Julie Lounds Taylor and colleagues [1] in today's post and some slightly worrying findings based on their longitudinal investigation of postsecondary (higher) education and employment experiences for a group of 73 adults diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

To quote: "Although two-thirds of adults with autism spectrum disorder participated in competitive employment/postsecondary education during the study, fewer than 25% maintained these activities over the study period."

I was interested in this specific sentence given some recent discussions with colleagues about how quite a lot of the conversations about employment and/or higher education access for those on the autism spectrum seemed to be missing some important elements including: (a) 'what factors successfully 'keep' a person in employment/education?' and (b) 'does long-term participation in education/employment really improve quality of life for everyone on the autism spectrum?'

Before anyone gets any ideas about me being somehow opposed to employment and higher education access for anyone and everyone who wants it, I'm not. As per some previous ramblings on this topic, I do think there are plenty of ways that the jobs market for example, can be opened up for those on the autism spectrum (see here) and society is poorer by not recognising the talents available. What I am slightly concerned about is quite a typical feature for autism research and practice with some of the sweeping generalisations that are often made that there is some sort of one-size-fits-all 'life plan' for everyone on the autism spectrum. There isn't and when it comes to jobs and education, there certainly isn't [2].

Appreciating that discussions about education and employment are quite prevalent in the research literature these days, I would very much like to see quite a bit more science done on the various reasons why higher education and/or employment in their current form might not necessarily be right for everyone on the autism spectrum and what can be done about it. Things like anxiety - which can be extremely disabling for some on the autism spectrum - affecting a person's ability to hold down a job for example, and the additional pressures that it can result in for both employees and employers. In these times of Governments striving for full employment, compassion for those not able to hold employment (including on the topic of benefits sanctions) should be extended at the same time as striving for improvements in offering opportunities. Drawing also on the idea that higher education might invoke certain stresses and strains that may uniquely affect some on the autism spectrum (see here) I'd like to see more investigations on what can be done to mitigate such issues and improve the learning experience for those on the spectrum who choose this particular direction.

"Women were considerably less likely than men to maintain employment/postsecondary education over time." This is another worrying finding reported by Taylor et al reiterating other work coming to similar conclusions [3]. I don't yet have any specific ideas why men with autism were more likely to hold down employment/education compared with women with autism but it strikes me that some further investigation should be quickly forthcoming.

To reiterate, I am by no means opposed to increasing access / participation in higher education and employment for those on the autism spectrum; society owes all it's citizens equal rights and importantly justice (see attached picture). What I do have a problem with is when equality assumes 'one-size-fits-all' and fails to understand the individual needs, wants and wishes of individuals [4]. This also includes the further requirement to debunk the idea that "natural science, engineering and IT" are the only educational / occupational courses 'right' for people on the autism spectrum [5].

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[1] Taylor JL. et al. Longitudinal patterns of employment and postsecondary education for adults with autism and average-range IQ. Autism. 2015 May 27. pii: 1362361315585643.

[2] Marshall D. & Goodall C. The Right to Appropriate and Meaningful Education for Children with ASD. JADD. 2015. June 3.

[3] Holwerda A. et al. Predictors of sustainable work participation of young adults with developmental disorders. Res Dev Disabil. 2013 Sep;34(9):2753-63.

[4] Griffith GM. et al. 'I just don't fit anywhere': support experiences and future support needs of individuals with Asperger syndrome in middle adulthood. Autism. 2012 Sep;16(5):532-46.

[5] Lorenz T. & Heinitz K. Aspergers--different, not less: occupational strengths and job interests of individuals with Asperger's Syndrome. PLoS One. 2014 Jun 20;9(6):e100358.

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ResearchBlogging.org Taylor JL, Henninger NA, & Mailick MR (2015). Longitudinal patterns of employment and postsecondary education for adults with autism and average-range IQ. Autism : the international journal of research and practice PMID: 26019306