Unrealized Cross-System Opportunities to Improve Employment and Employment-Related Services Among Autistic Individuals
- Employment is a key social determinant of health and well-being for the estimated 5.4 million autistic adults in the United States—just as it is for citizens without disabilities. Evaluation and monitoring of publicly funded employment services is paramount given the dramatic increases in adults with autism who need job supports.
- Vocational Rehabilitation agencies appeared to be absorbing short-term employment needs of autistic people, but Medicaid was severely lacking—and losing ground—in serving those who need longer-term employment services.
- Across both Vocational Rehabilitation and Medicaid, we estimated that only 1.1% of working-age autistic adults who potentially need employment services are actually receiving them—leaving an estimated 1.98 million autistic individuals without the employment services that are associated with achievement of well-being.
Employment is a key social determinant of health. As such, high rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty across the rapidly growing autistic population are concerning. A web of publicly funded services exists to support the employment, and associated health and well-being, of United States citizens with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities, namely through Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) and Medicaid home- and community-based services (HCBS) waivers. Given an absence of overarching surveillance of employment services, this study aimed to characterize the distribution of autistic service users across Medicaid versus VR, understand the types of employment services utilized within these programs and expenditures, and assess overall capacity to provide employment services as needs continue to increase.
This study examined the distribution of employment services among autistic people compared with those with intellectual disability using 2008–2016 data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and the Rehabilitation Services Administration. Estimated need for employment services among autistic individuals was compared with capacity derived from VR service counts and a review of HCBS waivers.
The number of autistic people served through VR tripled during the study years, whereas those served through Medicaid only increased slightly. VR spending increased by 384% over the study years, whereas Medicaid costs decreased by 29%. Across VR and Medicaid, we estimated that only 1.1% of working-age autistic adults who needed employment services received them.
Although VR appeared to be absorbing short-term employment needs of autistic individuals, Medicaid was severely lacking—and losing ground—in serving those who needed longer-term employment services. VR far outpaced Medicaid in both the number of autistic people served and total expenditures across the study years. However, an estimated 1.98 million autistic adults did not receive employment services that could be critical to improving their health and well-being.