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A high school classroom with students sitting at their desks while listening to a lecture. A student in the center of the image has raised a hand and is smiling while waiting to be called on.

Predicting Success for Students with Autism

The transition from high school to adulthood can be difficult for teens with autism, who may not be ready to thrive as young adults in typical college or workplace scenarios. Research shows that many teens with autism have trouble with core aspects of adult life, such as enrolling in college, obtaining a job or living away from home. This difficulty is even more pronounced for young adults with autism than it is for their peers who have other types of disabilities.

For example, a 2015 study showed that only 44% of high school graduates with autism enrolled in any form of postsecondary education within eight years of leaving high school as compared to over 60% of young adults with disabilities generally. The same study showed that for young adults with autism, fewer than 60% had obtained work in paid employment within eight years of leaving high school, as compared to 91% of young adults with disabilities generally.

These statistics point to tens of thousands of adults in New York state with autism who have untapped career potential and who receive significant financial support from family and/or government benefits.

Hoping to understand what high school experiences are important for improving these outcomes, researchers at Cornell ILR’s Yang-Tan Institute on Employment and Disability, and at Abt Associates, are nearing the end of a three-year study, the Autism Transition to Adulthood Initiative (ATTAIN). Led by principal investigator Leslie Shaw, a research associate at the Yang-Tan Institute, and funded by a gift from K. Lisa Yang ’74, the study asked which high school experiences correlate with improved outcomes for adults with autism by conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample of 272 people with autism. The study looked at three types of improved outcomes: attending any form of postsecondary education, becoming employed and living independently outside the family home.

Using a variety of methods, the researchers have identified these experiences, which they call “predictors of success.” In short, out of 23 predictors of success that had been previously identified as assisting students with any sort of disability, the study found 19 predictors that apply to students with autism. Out of these 19 predictors, they found several that correlate with at least two improved outcomes.

These key predictors are:

  • Being included in general education with others who do not have disabilities
  • Being employed while still in high school
  • Applying skills learned in high school to the community
  • Living away from home while in high school
  • Receiving instruction to assess career options

The most important predictor was being included in general education; it correlated with success in all three outcome areas.

“The results of ATTAIN point to concrete activities that I can advocate for with my son’s school or facilitate myself that will help him succeed. I can use the results of this study to help my son have a richer life after he leaves school.” —parent associated with the study

The next step for the ATTAIN team is to pilot an intervention for students with autism that will focus on experiences and skills expected to increase the odds of postschool success in all three areas of education, employment and independent living.

Anyone interested in understanding ATTAIN more fully can visit the project website at Resources available on the site include a policy brief and a downloadable checklist for use by students, parents and educators. The site also has recorded webinars that discuss project details.

Other ATTAIN researchers are Katie Brendli Brown, extension associate at the Yang-Tan Institute, and Hassan Enayati, senior research associate at Abt Associates. Enayati, who previously worked at the Yang-Tan Institute, initiated ATTAIN after the New York state Promoting the Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income (PROMISE) project ended in 2019. PROMISE investigated predictors for success for New York state high schoolers with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income, a federal benefits program available to youth with disabilities from low- or no-income families.

The ATTAIN team also studied recent outcomes for youth with disabilities who had participated in the PROMISE project — more information is on the website.

Note: This article uses a “person-first” approach to refer to autism. However, some people prefer an “identity-first” approach. For example, the phrase “person with autism” is in person-first style, but “autistic person” is identity-first. When referring to a specific person who has autism, it is best to use the approach that they prefer.

Providing practical information to transition specialists, educators, policymakers and others who assist people with disabilities is a core focus for the Yang-Tan Institute, which is part of the Cornell ILR School. Its mission is to advance knowledge, policies and practice that enhance equal opportunities for all people with disabilities. Its research, training and technical resources expand knowledge about disability inclusion, leading to positive change. The institute currently leads over a dozen active projects. They include the Northeast ADA Center, the Employer Assistance and Resource Network on Disability Inclusion (EARN) and the Center for Advancing Policy on Employment for Youth.