Research Seeks the Keys to Success at Work, College for Autistic Adults

/ November 16, 2021

By Eman Durrani and Julie Lounds Taylor

When a young person graduates from high school, the big questions that they are often likely to hear are “Where are you going to college?” or “Where do you plan on working?”

Being employed or obtaining a college degree are important goals for many people. This is also true for adults with disabilities. Yet, oftentimes for these adults, getting a job or enrolling in college can be a significant challenge. Studies have estimated that anywhere from 50%-80% of autistic adults are disengaged from work or educational opportunities at any given point in time.  But for many young folks on the autism spectrum who get a job or who enter college maintaining those positions over time can be very difficult. For example, we have found that in the first three years after leaving high school, 50% of autistic young adults experienced a disruption in their work or educational lives such as being fired from a job or dropping out of college. Despite these difficulties, there are few research studies that have examined employment stability and upward mobility among autistic adults – likely because to answer questions regarding stability, one has to follow individuals over a substantial period of time (to observe the stability/instability), which can be expensive and time-consuming.

Learning about changes in employment and education among autistic adults is important, but perhaps more important is learning about the services, supports and characteristics of individuals and families that can make employment and educational stability more likely. If there are specific services that seem to be helpful in promoting stability, these could be prioritized. If certain informal or “natural” supports seem to be important, we could work to build those for autistic adults. And if certain skills or abilities of adults are helpful in promoting stability and upward mobility, these could be targeted in programs and interventions. Ultimately, uncovering more about what promotes employment and educational stability (or instability) can help create better interventions and craft policies to support long-term, sustained, and improved employment and education outcomes for autistic adults.

Many existing interventions, services, and programs are focused on supporting adults with disabilities in finding a job or gaining acceptance to a post-secondary educational program. These are important. But we also need interventions that focus on helping adults be successful in employment or post-secondary education once it is obtained.

Here at the Transitions Lab at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, in partnership with the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we have recently launched a study that we expect will shed light on many of these issues.  Our study’s primary goal is to understand the range of service, community, family, and individual factors that predict employment and educational stability among autistic adults, as well as how instability in work/school impacts mental health and other outcomes. To address this goal, we will follow 200 autistic adults over three years. We will closely track vocational and educational activities and how they change over time. At yearly intervals, autistic adults and a close supporter (i.e., parent, partner, close friend) will complete interviews and surveys, with a brief check-in in the middle of each yearly interval. Autistic adults can earn up to $300 for their participation over the course of the study, and their close supporters can earn up to $275.

We are really excited about this study, as we expect that the information that we learn will have direct and immediate applications to both interventions and policy to support sustained success in the workplace and in educational settings for autistic adults. If you are interested in learning more about the study and potentially participating, please contact me, Eman Durrani, via phone 615-322-2943 or email at, or you can submit your information here:

I want to thank my colleagues Eman and Julie for writing about their research and for being passionate about finding answers to the stubborn questions of why so many autistic adults end up having such difficulties with employment and postsecondary education. I hope those doing the research and those participating in the research are able to find strategies and interventions that make a significant difference. Thank you, Eman and Julie. As always, if you have questions, please email me at Thank you for reading!

Eman Durrani is a research assistant at the Transitions Lab in VUMC. She recently received her bachelor’s degree from Belmont University in Nashville, where she studied psychology and minored in chemistry. Her broader interests are in the integration of research with evidence-based interventions and informed policy, although her research goals are being shaped by her experience at the Transitions Lab. Eman has future goals of pursuing further education in clinical psychology and potentially public policy.

Julie Lounds Taylor is the principal investigator and director of the Transitions Lab. She is an associate professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and an investigator at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. She received her doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of Notre Dame and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Lifespan Family Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A major focus of Julie’s research is on factors that promote a positive transition into adulthood for individuals with developmental disabilities, in particular those with autism. Her work has been funded by the National Institutes of Mental Health, Autism Speaks, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the FAR fund. She was the 2014 recipient of the American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Early Career Award. She is an associate editor for Autism: The International Journal of Research and Practice, and a member of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee.


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