Experts haven't pinpointed the exact reason, but they do know one thing-the rate at which children are being diagnosed with autism has been rising.
About one child in 150 is diagnosed by the age of 8 with autism or a related autism spectrum disorder such as Asperger's syndrome, according to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That rate is up about 10 times from the 1980s.
Experts have a variety of theories to explain the rise, from better diagnostics to environmental factors to more people having children at older ages. Whatever the cause, the increase is putting a growing burden on educators and organizations that prepare those with autism disorders for the work force.
And despite studies that show consumers look favorably upon companies that hire disabled workers, those same studies show employers often are reluctant to hire workers whose sensory disorders makes it difficult for them to process information and interact with others.
People with autism, a neurological disorder, often appear aloof or indifferent to others because they have difficulty with social relationships. They do not fully understand the meaning of common gestures, facial expressions or tones of voice because it's difficult for them to grasp verbal and non-verbal communication. And they have a limited range of imaginative activities, so they struggle with interpersonal play and abstract thought. In addition, they resist change, so they typically follow particular routines.
Most people who have autism are unemployed, making the average income of the group only $6,500 a year. State and notfor-profit agencies in Indiana and elsewhere are working to help those with autism make the transition into the work force, a move that benefits not only the individuals, but employers and the economy as well, advocates say.
"Once the disabled are out on their own instead of stuck inside a social services system, they add to the economy, spending at retail, paying taxes and rent, etc.," said Jeff Huffman, CEO of Janus Developmental Services Inc. in Noblesville, which helps prepare students with disabilities for the transition from school to employment.
But only about one in three autistic individuals is employed in a traditional work setting, according to a 2006 study by the Indiana Institute of Disability and Community. The study from the institute within Indiana University's Center for Excellence, looked at 11,405 individuals who receive day and employment services from most of the estimated 65 programs statewide.
The rest spend their time in sheltered work programs and non-employment day programs. A sheltered work program is one offered by an agency on its premises, such as assembly work contracted by companies.
Even with 92 percent of Americans saying they look favorably on employers who hire workers with disabilities, negative attitudes and fears still get in the way, as do federal regulations that dictate accommodations and job training for the disabled.
Employers often change their mind when they know what's in it for them, Huffman said.
That something is loyalty and longevity, said Patrick Jamison, transition outreach manager for Janus.
"[Those with disabilities] have a deep commitment to the job and the manager," Jamison explained, citing 94 percent of their clients are still with the same employer five years later, an unusually high level of loyalty in today's work environment.
To boost employers' likelihood of feeling secure in hiring the disabled, including those with autism, Janus is working to create a certificate program. Under the program, an autistic or otherwise disabled individual, would have something tangible to present to an employer that spells out his or her skills and training. Janus' programs include those related to food services, retail, customer services and others.
Janus is also working to create an apprenticeship program in printing and is working to build relationships with 40 employers in Hamilton County to create job opportunities. The county has 7,500 disabled children, Huffman said. That number, which includes those with autism and other disorders, will increase to 10,000 in five to seven years, he said. At any one time, the agency is helping 800 families.
Creating a network of agencies and employers requires help on the state level, as well. The Vocational Rehabilitation Services within the state's Family and Social Services Administration is part of that network and refers families to the different agencies based on need and individual situation, said Ken Williams, regional manager for the central Indiana area.
The agency has agreements with Janus, Noble of Indiana and other groups, and contributes to their funding.
Noble of Indiana, similar to Janus, helps employers identify their human resource needs and then matches a disabled individual to the job. Noble of Indiana job coaches work side by side with the disabled worker until the employer is comfortable with the results. Jobs include those related to janitorial, office and restaurant work, among others.
The top five types of work performed by disabled workers are agriculture, assembly/manufacturing, food service, janitorial/housekeeping and grocery/retail, according to the IU Bloomington study.
As is the case elsewhere, one of the Indianapolis agency's challenges is getting employers to buy into the program.
"Employers do shy away from hiring these people," said Rita Davis, director of community services for Noble of Indiana. "But we use education to show how this isn't an act of charity. It benefits their bottom line and meets their human resource needs. When you can carve out a basic, repetitive task, that frees up other employees to do different tasks and makes the employer more efficient."
Typically, transitioning from school to employment begins at age 14, the age at which the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act spells out transition services that schools are required to provide.
Janus, Noble of Indiana and other groups coordinate their efforts with school programs and work with parents on transition plans that ready students for employment. In addition to job skills, agencies teach life skills and relationship-building. Adult services include job shadowing, internships and sheltered work programs.