Aging Out

Perhaps the most glaring gap for people with autism is the evaporation of support when they reach adulthood. Regional studies suggest unemployment is high among adults with autism. Cognitive abilities are not protective: a study by developmental psychologist Julie Taylor, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, found that young adults with autism and no intellectual disabilities were three times more likely than those with autism and an intellectual disability to have no regular daytime activities, likely because there simply aren’t many employment or day programs designed for people of average or above-average intelligence with autism (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 41, No. 5, 2011).

Many adults with autism live at home, and research by psychologist Laura Klinger, PhD and colleagues has found that 54% of the caregivers of these adults report not being able to access enough services for help (Dudley, K.M., et al., Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 49, No. 2, 2019). Meanwhile, people with autism and comorbid mental health conditions can fall through the cracks. “If we have a person who is nonverbal, they could be depressed, but how would they tell us in words?” says Catherine Lord, PhD. “We have to be able to address the different kinds of issues that are going to come up.”

To address these gaps, Klinger has created a program at North Carolina community colleges called the TEACCH School Transition to Employment and Postsecondary Education program, or T-STEP. This program, administered through a set of long-running outpatient clinics affiliated with UNC called TEACCH, aims to teach young adults with autism who have earned or are earning a GED certificate the emotion regulation, executive function and

professional/social skills they’ll need to succeed in further education and jobs. Students also practice these skills at a volunteer internship site and receive individual education career counseling. Results from a pilot study of 75 students in the program show improvements in executive function and employment readiness skills, Klinger says, and declines in depression symptoms. Klinger and her team have now secured funding from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research and from the Department of Defense to conduct research on T-STEP using comparison groups.

Aging with autism is another area about which little is known. People with autism may have elevated susceptibility to age-related cognitive decline, according to research by Klinger and psychology doctoral student Patrick Powell (Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 47, No. 10, 2017). It’s not yet clear whether that susceptibility is due to physiological processes related to autism, or whether comorbid mental health conditions and lack of meaningful activities contribute, Klinger says.


Pappas, S. (2020). Helping People with Autism Reach their Full Potential. Vol. 52. No. 5.

Pg. 26. American Psychological Association.