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May 03, 2016

Drexel report: number of autistic people applying for job assistance doubled in five years

Median salary is only $160 per week

A new report from Drexel University has found that the rate of autistic people applying for job assistance from the government has doubled in five years — but the median salary of the people who get jobs through that assistance is only $160 per week.

The focus of the report was on vocational rehabilitation (VR), a federally funded but state-managed program that helps around half a million disabled people each year find employment.

"Vocational rehabilitation is the largest public assistance program to help people [with disabilities] connect with jobs," said Anne Roux, lead author of the report and a researcher at Drexel's Autism Institute.

Related story: For adults with autism, a struggle to find jobs

It's important to see if the services provided through this program are working, she said, especially because they can be costly. The report found that VR services for autistic people cost almost 20 percent more per person than services for people with intellectual disabilities but not autism.

Overall, the average amount spent on employment services for people with autism in 2014 was $5,892 per person, while it was $5,481 for people with other kinds of disabilities.

The findings

The report looked mostly at federal data from 2014. Overall, only three percent of eligible applicants for VR services nationwide were autistic, and around two-thirds of those people actually received services.

"It is surprising that more people are not getting help, that it's only two-thirds," Roux said. Lack of funding could explain why not every eligible applicant gets services.

Thankfully for Pennsylvanians, the Keystone State ranked tops in the nation when it came to the share of autistic applicants receiving services: 88 percent.

In New Jersey, in comparison, 54 percent of eligible applicants received services. The federal data also did not list any New Jersey residents with autism who got job referrals or on-the-job support from a VR agency.

A spokeswoman for New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development said that was because of the way that the state classifies people in its case management system.

"Our Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services codes the functional barrier to employment, rather than the diagnosis," said the spokeswoman, Amanda Pisano. "If a person is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder but their biggest barrier to employment is manifested as anxiety then we would code that person under mental health. Because of this, we probably have many more consumers on the spectrum that are not specifically coded Autism."

She said that the state is changing its classification system, so those numbers will change in the future.

Nationwide, 60 percent of autistic people who used VR services found a job through the program. However, about four out of five of those jobs were part-time and, as a result, median income was $160 per week, which is $64 below the poverty line.

These results are similar to a previous report from Drexel which found that 79 percent of employed autistic young adults held part-time jobs.

Another reason researchers wanted to focus on vocational rehabilitation is that the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed in 2014, has put more emphasis on starting vocational rehabilitation services when people are still in high school; so they can more smoothly transition from youth to independent adulthood. State agencies now must use at least 15 percent of their funds on transition-age youth.

"There's a huge shift to trying to serve people earlier, which makes sense, but we don't have the data yet to know if it's actually working or not," Roux said.

As of 2014, a little less than half of VR users applied when they were in high school. The report, Roux said, "gives us a baseline to measure programs from."

However, she added, "It's also an indicator that we need to be doing a better job."

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