Helping Adult Autistic Individuals Leap Over the ‘Services Cliff’

What is the number one concern for adults on the autism spectrum once they turn 21? Ask them and their caregivers, and most will state the much-dreaded “services cliff.” This is the common catch-all phrase to describe the drop-off in support after high school graduation, when federally mandated government services abruptly end, and few opportunities (if any) for upward mobility such as education and employment exist.

In a March 2017 “Spectrum News” article, “The twenty-something free fall,” parent Kiely Law, also research director of the Interactive Autism Network, perceptively summed it up—“We’ve done a great job of raising awareness about autism in children, but we’re really missing this adult piece.” However thankfully, many organizations nationwide are working to change the narrative. In this three-part column series, Rockaway Beach Autism Families (RBAF) board member, Venus Ramos, and I introduce readers to remarkable individuals steadfastly working to help autistic adults leap over the “services cliff,” and live purpose-driven lives. Also, we layout the case, why local businesses should consider hiring autistic adults. For example, if loyalty, detail-oriented and lower turnover risk are priorities for any businesses’ employee recruitment pool—autistic adults tick off all the boxes! All they need is a chance to wow you. However, first—here are the grim statistics.

Researchers estimate that about 50,000 young people with autism turn 18 every year. More than 66% of young adults on the spectrum do not secure a job or enroll in further education during the first two years after high school. Even two to four years later, nearly half are still not working or in school, according to the “2015 National Autism Indicators Report,” produced by Philadelphia’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute. And they struggle in other ways: one in four young adults on the spectrum is socially isolated; more than half receive no vocational or life skills at all in their 20s; and only one in five works full time with average earnings of about $8 per hour. Whereas the majority of young people with language impairments or learning disabilities live independently, less than one-quarter of young adults with autism ever do so. Hence, it’s not surprising that in addition to in autism, many adults also suffer from anxiety and depression.

In fact, a 2010 study found that once adolescents leave school, any improvement they had shown in repetitive behaviors, reciprocal social interactions and communication basically stalls. Meanwhile, those who had shown progress in problem behaviors such as self-injury and aggression backslide.

These individuals work really hard at school, plus the rigorous therapeutic services they receive after school. Sometimes I’m in awe of how much work my daughter and her peers put in every day. From speech, occupational, applied behavioral therapy, and more—it’s a long day, every day. These kids put in the work, and to see their glee when they reach a goal is priceless. Also, immense props to the teachers and therapists. Working in the special-needs field is not a clock-in/clock-out job. These professionals put a lot of heart in their work, and emotions run high, especially when they witness their students’ progress. So, isn’t it a shame that once autistic individuals phase out of high school, the momentum just abruptly drops? How can this be turned around? The answer is to continue the momentum with support, services and opportunities.

In the next installation of this series, don’t miss our interview with longtime Staten Island disability advocate, Burak Uzun, who through S.O.C.A. (Supportive Online Classes for Achievement), helps his students gain control of their emotions using meditation and breathing techniques, learn appropriate workplace behavior and online interaction, the basics of finance and more. Uzun will speak at RBAF’s support group meeting, happening on Thursday, January 19, 7 p.m. at Knights of Columbus (333 Beach 90th Street). For further info, email or visit Rockaway Beach Autism Families on Facebook/Instagram.

By Kami-Leigh Agard & Venus Ramos,
Rockaway Beach Autism Families

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