The transition from adolescence to adulthood is a time of amplified risk for individuals with ASD. It is unknown, however, whether problems in employment and educational attainment in the years immediately after high school exit represent “momentary perturbations” in development or a “turning point” in development with long-lasting effects throughout adulthood.
The present study addressed this question by examining 10-year trajectories of vocational outcomes for adults with ASD, as well as the personal characteristics and environmental resources that predicted outcomes.
Participants were 161 adults with ASD (ages 18-52 at the start of the study, M=30.9 years) who were part of a larger longitudinal study, and who had all exited high school prior to the start of the study. Approximately three-fourths (72%) of the sample was male and 80.7% had an intellectual disability (ID). Data were collected at 6 time points over a 10-year period. Vocational Outcomes were measured at each time using the Vocational Index (Taylor & Seltzer, 2012). This index is composed of nine ordered categories, ranked on a scale from 1 to 9; ordering of categories reflects the independence necessary to achieve a vocational/educational activity, as well as whether the adult participated in activities for more than a minimal amount of time. Independent variables included indicators of personal characteristics (ID; sex; autism symptoms; maladaptive behaviors; independence in activities of daily living) and environmental resources (family income; number of services; unmet service needs; maternal support).
Multi-level models were used to examine whether personal characteristics and environmental resources were related to 1) concurrent Vocational Index scores (Time 1 scores); 2) Vocational Index scores measured 10 years later (Time 6 scores); and 3) change in Vocational Index scores over time (slope).
Overall, Vocational Index scores were declining over the 10-year study period, B = -.04, p < .05, with less than one-quarter of the sample (24%) evidencing any improvement. Greater declines were observed for females relative to males, B = -.09, p < .05. On average, Vocational Index scores of females with ASD declined over 1 full point on the 9-point scale; this decline was 4 times greater than what was observed for males. Personal characteristics of the adult with ASD predicted higher Vocational Index scores at Time 1 and Time 6, including no comorbid ID (Bs = 1.55 and 1.10 for Time 1 and Time 6, respectively, ps < .01), more independence in activities of daily living (Bs = .06 and .06 for Time 1 and Time 6, respectively, ps < .05), fewer maladaptive behaviors (B = -.04, p < .05 for Time 6), and fewer autism symptoms (B = -.11, p < .05 for Time 6). Environmental resources were not related to Vocational Index scores.
On average, adults with ASD were losing ground in their vocational and educational activities over the 10-year study period – particularly females. Discussion will focus on the role of sex, independence in activities of daily living, and behavior problems in the vocational activities of these adults.
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