In the last few years, we have heard a lot about the increase in the number of children with autism. This attention is certainly warranted: The latest research suggests that one in every 69 children born in the United States has autism, an alarming increase from the one in every 150 less than 20 years ago.
As much as I appreciate this attention to children with autism, I worry that it is short-sighted. After all, each year, every child with autism advances toward an adulthood with autism … and, unfortunately, toward a future for which we, as a culture, are not prepared.
It’s not too late to prepare. But we must start now.
This is no small matter. According to a recent Drexel University report, roughly half a million young people with autism will become adults in the next 10 years. When they do, they will experience a sudden decline in the services available to them, as they “age out” of school-based services and other government-funded programs.
Some also will age out of supported-living arrangements and might be required to move home. The Drexel study found that almost half of adults with autism live with parents or other relatives, and those families often are not getting help: Almost 40% of individuals with autism who live with family members do not receive any government-funded in-home supports. Exacerbating that problem is the fact that nearly 1 million people with developmental disabilities and autism are cared for by someone age 60 or older, and that adults with autism often confront unique health challenges along with the age-related health challenges common to us all.
Now maybe you understand my concern. And maybe you’re already realizing the accompanying problem: Left unaddressed, these challenges will result in considerable costs to our communities. That’s why we must act now.
First, we must commit to examining the challenge and opportunities. At this point, only about 1% of all autism research funding is focused on adults. That’s simply not enough to equip us to address the coming surge in adults with autism.
Second, we need to prepare our communities. We need to develop housing and community supports specifically for adults with autism (and other disabilities) and offer employment opportunities that will allow these adults to become increasingly self-sufficient.
That last point is the one on which many of you reading this can take action now.
Today, adults with autism face an unemployment rate that hovers around 50%, even though many of them are hard-wired with the skills most valued by employers. A number of Indianapolis employers value their employees with autism because of their loyalty, diligence and attention to detail. Employers who hire adults with autism might qualify for tax deductions and credits, and many of these employees bring with them resources that help to ensure their success, from funding for training to one-on-one aides.
I hope this appeal will resonate in light of today’s worker shortages. While I know that hiring workers with disabilities can seem daunting if you’ve never done so before, I also know that countless employers are happy they took that leap. I encourage you to investigate the possibilities. Where could a worker with autism fit into your workforce?
Certainly, hiring a few workers with autism won’t fully address the coming surge in adults with autism. But it’s a tangible way to begin to address a big challenge. And we need that.•
Dalton is president and CEO of Damar Services Inc.