Can Adults with Autism Achieve Independence?

Research shows that young adults with autism are more likely to live with their parents than those with other diagnoses. The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, a long-term, federally funded survey of special education students and their parents, followed 620 individuals with autism, 450 with intellectual disabilities, 410 with learning disabilities, and 380 with emotional disturbance from across the United States. They found that only 17% of young adults with autism between the ages of 20 to 25 lived independently, compared to 34% of peers with intellectual disabilities.

The number of children diagnosed with autism has skyrocketed over the past few decades, and many of these individuals are ageing out of the school systems, and the services that come with them. According to current research, most of these people will be living with family members, or in group homes. What happens when elderly parents can no longer care for their adult children with autism?

Some school districts, like Montclair High School in New Jersey, are piloting a “transition into adulthood” program which seeks to find job opportunities for young adults with disabilities. The program offers intensive coaching to the individual and to the people in the workplace, in the hopes of finding an environment where the individual with a disability can contribute and learn the social mores of the workplace. This involves taking people with disabilities into the community, to practice everyday activities such as grocery shopping, going to the gym, and participating in workplace internships. The biggest challenge for people with autism is navigating the unspoken social rules of the workplace. Behaviors such as standing too close to others, speaking too loudly, or making inappropriate comments can cause difficulty for people with autism at work.

Temple Grandin recommends that parents teach their children with autism basic manners and proper grooming. She also recommends teaching the rules of work, including being on time and following your boss’s directions. She also says,

“Never tell other people that they are stupid even if they are stupid. Do not tell dirty jokes or express your opinions on politics or religion at work.”

People with autism may need to be coached on these implicit rules, as these are the types of gaffes that can lead to getting fired. She also recommends asking for specific instructions in written form, such as e-mail. Open-ended tasks such as “develop new software” may be too vague for someone with autism to follow through on properly.

Clearly, people with autism will need support in learning how to navigate the workplace, and employers will need to be flexible and understanding. Many people with autism have talents and abilities that, if harnessed, could be a great contribution to employers and to society. Helping people with autism learn how to navigate the workplace can ease the burden on already overtaxed social programs, and will lead to a brighter future for these individuals and their families. Some see neuro-diversity as the next civil rights frontier, opening new opportunities for talented individuals whose brains work differently.

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About Laurel Joss

Laurel Joss is a freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education. She worked as an RDI® Program Certified Consultant and has published articles in Autism Spectrum Quarterly and on her blog She is a mother to two children, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. You can also follow her on and