By Anne Roux

Originally posted on February 14, 2017

Where you live matters. That’s what we realized when we started looking at how youth with autism fare, from state to state, in terms of their employment outcomes. What we don’t know is why this is the case.

In our first National Autism Indicators Report, we found that four in ten youth with autism never had a paid job between high school and their early twenties. Some of these youth also failed to connect to services that could help them find employment after high school. This finding prompted us to look in-depth at the most recent data on the U.S. Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) system, which provides funding to states for services that assist people with disabilities to prepare for, find, and keep employment. We looked at things like the numbers of people with autism who received services through VR, the kinds of supports they received, and what their outcomes were.

We noticed strong differences across states on many fronts. For example, only 39% of eligible VR applicants with autism in North Dakota actually received services, compared to 88% in Pennsylvania. While only 29% of VR service users with autism in New Mexico exited with employment, 79% exited with employment in Alabama. The size of these gaps begged for further investigation. What is happening in Alabama that might not be happening in New Mexico?

Employment outcomes could be related to the types of interventions people receive. But interstate gaps of this degree indicate that there must be other important factors influencing employment, such as variation in policies or in states’ economic environments. Discovering which factors are associated with better performing states may lead to recommendations that could improve employment for young adults on the spectrum.

We are excited to begin the work of figuring out what is different across states. Are some states using innovative policies and programs that other states could borrow? The Organization for Autism Research recently funded our application for pilot study on the “Association of State-level Factors with Vocational Outcomes for Transition-age Youth with Autism,” and the timing of this funding is critically important.

A large natural experiment is about to unfold across states. States are now beginning to implement new federal legislation – the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), which requires them to spend 15% of their VR dollars on pre-employment transition services – mostly aimed at high school students with disabilities. However, the law allows wiggle room on how states deliver these services.  Our ability to study what works or doesn’t work across states to help youth with autism in their transition to employment is crucial for improving employment outcomes.

Some families of youth with autism are able to relocate their families to avail themselves of the best state services and resources. Not all families have the luxury of doing so, and moving across state lines shouldn’t be the only solution. We’ve come a long way in securing basic rights for those with disabilities through federal legislation – but our job isn’t done. We must seek to better understand the drastic differences in employment of people with autism across states and put plans in place to remedy the situation. This newly funded study will give us a glimpse into the factors underlying state-level differences and shed light on ways to move forward.

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