Kelly Andrus plays with her son Bradley in his classroom at Children's Choice Learning Centers Inc., in Lewisville, Texas. Bradley, who turns three in a couple of weeks, was diagnosed a year ago with mild autism.
Research into the development patterns of children with autism disorders has documented a disturbing truth that likely comes as no surprise to parents trying to nurture autistic kids into adulthood.
A study by Washington University in St. Louis validates what many families have witnessed firsthand — that the road to maturation is difficult and often disheartening. The study shows 35 percent of children with autism-related disorders who finish high school do not go forward with additional education or make it into the workforce.
As one researcher put it, "They were just not involved in anything."
It is an alarmingly large number, especially by comparison. The rate of young adults with a severe speech impairment who are not working or in school is 7 percent. For older kids with documented learning disabilities, it is 3 percent. Among those with severe mental disabilities, it is 26 percent.
Why those with autism-spectrum disorders encounter roadblocks in greater proportion than others is not entirely apparent. The research, however, points to some possibilities. Most programs that deal with autism focus on diagnosis and early intervention. There are apparently fewer established programs that deal specifically with children moving out of adolescence.
That may be no fault of anything other than the fact that we are still in the early stages of learning about autism, its possible causes and various manifestations.
Earlier this year, data from 2008 was released, indicating a colossal jump in diagnoses of autism over a six-year period: 78 percent nationally, 157 percent in Utah. The data does not answer whether incidents of the disorders are for some reason increasing dramatically, or whether the higher number is a by-product of greater awareness and more diagnostic prowess. Many experts suspect the latter.
Either way, the number of those affected is significant — one out of 47 children in Utah — a rate greater than 2 percent of the population. A third of those kids will be stymied as they grow up and try to move into the larger world. That is sad, but not necessarily inevitable. The research suggests the dropout rate is lower among kids in families of higher socioeconomic status.
The implication is that families with greater means have access to greater levels of treatment. That, in turn, implies there are programs that work, helping to overcome impediments to a productive adult life.
Clearly, the findings of this latest research should push toward greater prioritization of programs that target older children, and for an expansion of such services to a larger swath of the afflicted population.
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Societal awareness of autism is increasing, as is the level of commitment to learning more about the array of disorders under the autism umbrella. More than $1 billion has been spent in the United States on research in the last decade, leading to increasing insight into the particulars of the affliction and potential courses of prevention and remediation.
That research should and will continue. In the meantime, it is important not to forget those kids who have grown up autistic, and who now face a steep hill to climb in the next phase of their lives.