High School Graduates with Autism: What are they NOT up to?

High school graduation is an exciting time with parties, college picks, and ceremonies. It can also be a source of anxiety because for many students, the future is uncertain. What about students with disabilities such as autism?

K-12 Education Offers Supports

Let’s back up a minute to talk about K-12 education. In public education, paraprofessional support is offered, free of charge to families. Schools must provide the support to students who demonstrate a need and who have an IEP (Individual Education Plan). Schools must provide support regardless of the budget or the number of students they serve. Paraprofessionals assist with routine assignments, reassure students when anxious, help them find their classroom or through the lunch line, hang out with them at recess, and so on. They provide the glue that can make school a successful experience.

After Graduation, Then What?

What happens after graduation? After graduation, young adults transition to adult services (if they qualify). Adult services provide support based on the budget. Many graduates with autism do not qualify for any services at all, particularly if they do not have an intellectual disability in combination with autism. In adult services, support is provided when it’s available; usually, a waiting list that stretches over several years.

Some may think this is a relatively minor issue. Not true. High school graduates with autism number 50,000 per year. This means that half a million young adults under the age of 30 are in our midst. Those with obvious needs in the areas of daily living skills qualify for various levels of support, from a few hours per week to full-time day services and group homes. Individuals with autism without a cognitive deficit are often on their own to manage sensory sensitivities and executive functioning challenges. One has to wonder how they manage.

From 2000 to 2009, high school graduates with autism were interviewed to answer this question (National Longitudinal Transition Study, Wave 5). The results were startling:

High School Graduates with Autism, Ages 21-25

Employed at Least Once Since High School: 63%
Attended Postsecondary School: 43%
Participated in Employment, Education and/or Job Training: 70%
Have Lived Away from Home: 17%
Have a Drivers License: 33%
Participated in Community Groups: 61%
Spend Time with Friends: 48%

It’s a good sign that 70% of young adults participated in at least one activity related to education or employment. It was, however, the lowest percentage compared to other disability categories. What are these graduates doing if they are not attending school, working, volunteering in the community or spending time with friends? You probably guessed the same thing I did: They are likely in their parents’ living room watching TV or playing video games.

Businesses are finding ways to support these talented individuals. An increasing number of companies, for example, in the tech industry, are finding out that hiring autistics has some real advantages. This is a hopeful trend that will allow all of us to appreciate the gifts they have to offer.


Newman, L., Wagner, M., Knokey, A.-M., Marder, C., Nagle, K., Shaver, D., Wei, X., with Cameto, R., Contreras, E., Ferguson, K., Greene, S., and Schwarting, M. (2011). The Post-High School Outcomes of Young Adults With Disabilities up to 8 Years After High School. A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) (NCSER 2011-3005). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. https://ies.ed.gov/ncser/pubs/20113005/

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