FRIDAY, Jan. 31, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- For adults with
autism, having the chance to work somewhat independently may lead
to a reduction in symptoms of the disorder, a new study
The research puts new emphasis on the potential for adults with
autism to develop and improve over their lifetimes, said study
author Julie Lounds Taylor, an assistant professor of pediatrics at
Vanderbilt University, in Nashville.
"We have assumed it's really hard to budge autism symptoms in adulthood. Drugs are targeted to problems like acting out, for example," she said. "But this study suggests that these adults need a place where they're intellectually stimulated, and then we'll see a reduction in symptoms."
The challenge is to find the right fit between a person's
abilities and interests and a specific job, she explained.
"How independent can they be and what are the risks of failure? We have to be careful. You're talking about a huge range of people with autism," Taylor said. "I've seen people who can manage pretty high-level jobs, like computer programming or being in the military, while others have more [mental] challenges, but can still work a job in the community with support."
Autism spectrum disorders are a class of neurodevelopmental
disorders defined by difficulties with social functioning and
communication, according to the researchers. Symptoms include
restricted interests, repetitive behaviors and difficulty with
The study findings were reported online recently in the
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
Increasing the level of independence in adults with autism isn't
necessarily difficult to do, Taylor said. "We found behavior
changes any time you could bump [them] up to doing something a
little more independent," she said. "As they get more independent,
you see more benefit."
Yet understanding what makes a good fit is a huge challenge, she
said. "Insight is one of the characteristics people with autism
typically may not have, so we will probably need the person's
perspective and then gather information from families, looking at
what's available, and incorporating all of that together," Taylor
About 50 percent of adults with autism spend their time in
sheltered settings, and a minority work in the community, according
to Taylor. Most have trouble holding steady jobs, she added.
For the study, the researchers tracked the behavioral
development and activities of 153 people with autism spectrum
disorder over a five-year period. Their average age was about
The data came from a larger study conducted at the University of
Wisconsin-Madison, which followed 400 families with adolescents
with autism over 10 years. Data were collected at two different
points in time almost six years apart. Data came from the primary
caregiver -- 150 were mothers and three were fathers.
The researchers found that having greater vocational
independence and engagement was related to reduction in autism
symptoms and maladaptive behaviors. It was also associated with
improvements in daily life activities.
An expert in autism spectrum disorders who was not involved in
the study said the results were not surprising.
"This study suggests that, as with nondisabled individuals, a more positive work experience can have many important associated benefits downstream," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York, in New Hyde Park.
If the research can be replicated, Adesman said it suggests
greater emphasis needs to be given to helping adults with autism
spectrum disorder find as independent and engaging a work
environment as possible.
Taylor said the key point for parents of adults with autism
spectrum disorder is to understand the value of getting the best
possible vocational placement for their son or daughter and
advocating for it.
"If it's a terrible fit, in ability or in what interests them, it won't work out," she said. "But a job can have lasting behavioral impact across the lifespan."
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more about
adults with autism.
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