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In 2016, a paper entitled Autism in the Workplace: Assessing the Transition Needs of Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder claimed:

The most recent unemployment statistics for adults with ASD show that 85% are unemployed [...]

They cite the National Autistic Society's web-page (which was perhaps similar to this page.)

In April 2019, Market Watch claimed:

There will be 500,000 adults on the autism spectrum aging into adulthood over the next 10 years. Yet a whopping 85% of college grads affected by autism are unemployed, compared to the national unemployment rate of 4.5%.

Spectrum of Hope repeat this claim, citing MarketWatch.

This number seems extremely high and draws suspicion. Contrast this with 21% unemployment for people with intellectual disabilities (of the 44% in the labor force), regardless of college education.

Is this claimed figure correct?

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    After the edit, it is clearer the 2016 and 2019 claims are very different. The first is 85% of all people with ASD, the latter is grads on the autism spectrum. – Oddthinking Dec 29 '20 at 8:53
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    This question would benefit immensely of having a country tag and the country explicitly pointed out in the title. – T. Sar Dec 29 '20 at 12:53
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    I strongly suspect that the Market Watch piece mistakenly said "college grads" when they meant to say "adults". – Daniel R Hicks Dec 29 '20 at 20:16
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    @T.Sar the original data was specific to Great Britain, but later quotes have ignored that. The claim of the paper itself is certainly notable enough for such a challenge, and it did not have a country specified. – Ben Barden Dec 29 '20 at 22:56
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    @De novo: That's why I should look at 25-64 employment rates instead. Too many people give up completely. – Kevin Kostlan Dec 30 '20 at 10:41
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First, some clarifying information about the paper. This is important, as the paper itself is what's being quoted... basically everywhere else you've mentioned, at however many removes.

That paper was initially published in the Journal of Business and Management, Volume 22, number 1 (March 2016). That issue was an issue specifically abotu autism in the workplace. It is available without login at http://jbm.johogo.com/pdf/volume/2201/JBM-vol-2201.pdf. It was apparently funded by Chapman University’s Thompson Policy Institute on Disability and Autism, which was founded in 2015.

The definition of what is and what is not autism are sometimes a bit fuzzy, but the paper itself states "Further, over the next decade, close to a half-million people with ASD will reach adulthood (CDC, 2016), and it is estimated that 70% of these young adults will be unable to live independently (National Autistic Society, 2016)." If your definition of autism is such that 70% will be unable to live independently, you're talking about some pretty severe cases. We also get to the claim itself: "The most recent unemployment statistics for adults with ASD show that 85% are unemployed and that 69% of them want to work (National Autistic Society, 2016)".

When we look at the National Autistic Society, we find that it is, as linked, a charity in the UK. That in turn links to an Autism Gap Employment Report, which was published in November of 2016. Looking into the self-declared methodology of that report, we get "Our charity carried out an autism and employment survey online between March and May 2016. It was completed by 2,080 autistic adults, or people responding on their behalf." and "Focus groups of autistic adults were held in Bristol, Manchester and Nottingham in April and May 2016. Further insight was gathered from a roundtable discussion with autistic adults and the former Minister for Disabled People hosted by The National Autistic Society in April 2016." That in turn suggests that the numbers they're pulling are no more reliable than any other web survey.

The weird thing about it is the publication dates. If the paper was published March 2016, then it couldn't possibly have included anything more than the most preliminary data from the web survey, and would leave precious little time for any sort of review process even there. The paper itself claimed that the data was from the National Autistic Society 2016, which suggests that that was the data it was working on... unless the NAS had done some sort of prior information-gathering in January and February, but not included the results in their Employment Report... or alternately, had done a prior report. If they had done a prior report, it's not one that can be easily found on their site. That also seems generally unlikely, as "autism and employment" isn't getting a huge amount of attention in their later news releases, suggesting that it was the focus of a single specific effort rather than an ongoing thing.

Regardless, much of this could be easily explained if, for example, the Journal of Business and Management published the special edition a few months later than they might otherwise have, but not recorded that fact properly in their archives. The more important conclusion comes from the fact that even if there had been prior data-gathering by the NAS, it's highly unlikely that it would have been significantly more rigorous.

The MarketWatch claim may have been published in 2019, but it was the republication of an article from 2017, and the claim itself was not sourced. As such, it's likely based on this same source of data.

Conclusion: all of this is most likely coming out of the results of a web survey, put together by a politically motivated charity in the UK, based on a definition of autism severe enough that most of those who suffer from it are unable to live independently. Whether or not the results were biased by the charity in question, the simple fact that it was a web survey indicates that the reliability is pretty suspect, and they're talking about the particularly mild cases.

Important further note: While the provenance (and resulting reliability in a vacuum) of the actual quote is as I have described it, as @Fizz rightly points out in their own answer, there are additional data sources that offer further support to the underlying idea that people with full-blown autism have significant difficulty in the workplace (though the specific numbers vary). I encourage those that are interested in the topic to read that answer for a more complete breakdown of the provenance and implications of those data sources.

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  • If the main challenge for the 70% who can't "live independently" is holding down a job (instead of daily chores and remembering to pay rent, etc), there is room perhaps for better job accommodations. Time will tell. – Kevin Kostlan Dec 30 '20 at 10:44
  • Why do you think the definition of "autism" should not include all cases? Autism isn't just a cute label to put on a self-diagnosed instagram user with social anxiety. – pipe Dec 30 '20 at 11:30
  • @pipe in practice, people use a variety of definitions for the word. I am stating that "70%... will be unable to live independently" is an indicator of the definition in use here. I make no claims whatsoever about what the definition "should" or "should not" include. – Ben Barden Dec 30 '20 at 14:41
  • @KevinKostlan I make no statement as to the desirability of additional job accommodations. That topic may be somewhat informed by my answer, but has no bearing on it. – Ben Barden Dec 30 '20 at 14:44
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Before ridiculing the reporting too much (especially the MarketWatch rendering of it), it's helpful to read it in more context (p.10) even in the the Griffiths et al. paper. Even though in the intro on p.6 Griffiths et al. only make that singular quip that was quoted in the question), they later say (p. 10):

The National Autism Society (2016) estimated the unemployment rate to be as high as 85%, while a study of 200 transition-age young adults with ASD found that 81% were unemployed (Gerhardt & Lanier, 2011). A small study of young adults with ASD and IQs above 50 found that only 11.76% were employed (Howlin et al., 2004). One study showed that approximately half of young adults with ASD worked for pay after high school (Roux et al., 2013). The same study also found that the odds of ever having a paid job were higher for those who were older, from higher income households, or who had better conversational or functional skills (Roux et al., 2013).

What might account for the differences in unemployment rates reported for adults with ASD? One explanation is that the variance may be due to differences in the populations sampled. Another explanation is that both full- and part-time employment are often included when calculating unemployment rates. In addition, individuals with ASD are often given fewer hours of work than they would like. One study found that 74% of young adults with ASD who worked were doing so only on a part-time basis (Gerhardt & Lanier, 2011). Baldwin et al. (2014) found that adults with Asperger’s Syndrome, as compared to the general population, were more likely to work part-time. Finally, adults with ASD tend to be underpaid compared to their peers without ASD (Ballaban-Gil et al., 1996; Howlin et al., 2004; Roux et al., 2013).

It also is important to take into account the type of work included in the definition of employment. One study found that 56% of the individuals considered employed were working in day programs or sheltered workshops (Taylor & Seltzer, 2011). Howlin et al. (2004) found that 12% of individuals with ASD worked in supported, sheltered, or volunteer employment and that 62.5% were in some type of day program. Research also has shown that young adults with ASD are more likely to be overeducated and overqualified for their jobs, meaning that the work that they do is beneath their capabilities (Baldwin et al., 2014). Further, they work in a limited number of occupations (Roux et al., 2013). Finally, they are more likely to be underemployed (Baldwin et al., 2014; Krieger et al., 2012; Nord et al., 2016; Paul et al., 2016; Richards, 2012; Roux et al., 2013; Scott et al., 2015; Shattuck et al., 2011).

Adults with ASD also face significant challenges in maintaining employment (Baldwin et al., 2014; Lorenz & Heinitz, 2014; Richards, 2012; Roux et al., 2013). When they experience conflict or stress at work, adults with ASD may quit or miss work without prior notice (Richards, 2012). They also are more likely than their peers without ASD to change jobs frequently and, as a result, to experience higher levels of ongoing stress and financial concerns (Baldwin et al., 2014).

I.e. it's not a singular finding in that (high) range and it does indeed depend on what definition one adopts for both autism and employment. In general, as it's evident from the literature surveyed above, the studies involved small samples, which do raise some questions about generalization.

None of these speak of "85% of college grads affected by autism" as Market Watch has it (emphasis mine), so that (rendering) is clearly outlandish--if only am I to address the title question.

Now if want to compare those findings with those form the paper linked by the Special Olympics page... (Siperstein et al., 2013) you also have to keep in mind that they use more proper economics (BLS) terms, but they also discuss related works...

Although the unemployment rate is a well-known and popular way to describe the employment landscape, other statistics should be considered in conjunction to fully understand the employment situation of adults with disabilities. The unemployment rate only takes into account those individuals who are in the labor force (i.e., either working or out of work yet seeking employment). For individuals with disabilities it is also important to consider the employment rate, as this figure takes into account all working-aged individuals, regardless of whether they are in or out of the labor force. During the period of 2008– 2010 the estimated employment rate of adults with disabilities was extremely low, ranging from 39% to 34% compared with the much higher rates of 79% and 76% for individuals without a disability (Erickson, Lee, & von Schrader, 2010, 2011, 2012) [...]

It is difficult to derive national estimates as to the employment rate of adults with ID [intellectual disabilities], given the variation in the way disability is defined (e.g. Taylor, Krane, & Orkis, 2010; Yamaki & Fujiura, 2002); however, the American Community Survey (ACS) includes the category of cognitive disability which provides a close approximation of the employment rate. According to the ACS, presently, less than one out of four adults with cognitive disabilities are employed. In fact, estimates of the employment rate among these adults suggest that it declined slightly over the past 5 years; in 2008 it was reported that 28% of adults with cognitive disabilities were employed (Erickson et al., 2010), compared with the most recent estimate of 23% (Erickson et al., 2012). Furthermore, these numbers do not address the issue of underemployment. That is, when adults with ID are employed, they are most often employed part time and are paid a lower wage than their fellow workers without disabilities (Butterworth et al., 2012; U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2013).

Siperstein et al. (2013) themselves used BLS defs for their own study, but also some unofficial sub-categorizations :

The labor department defines employment as a working-age adult currently holding a job, regardless of the pay, hours, or type of work. [...]

The employment rate represents the proportion of working-age people who are currently employed. The employment rate of adults with ID aged 21–64 in the present sample was 34%. [...] Of great import in describing the employment of adults with ID is the setting. Of the adults with ID in the sample, 18% were competitively employed and 13% were employed in a sheltered setting.

(BLS themselves probably has no def of "competitively employed". Also 18+13=31; another 3% were employed in an "other setting", according to a later table.)

Assuming those papers on ASD used not-in-the-workforce as their definition of "unemployment" (outside of pure economics papers, the confusion is made often enough) there isn't that much of gap between the findings on ASD (80-85%) and ID (75%). Actually, if you look carefully at the 1st quote Howlin et al., 2004 measured employment, not unemployment.

Gerhardt and Lainer (2011) (which is itself a review) actually have a decent summary of Howlin's paper:

For example, Howlin et al. (2004) surveyed 68 adults (average age of 29 years) with autism and a performance IQ of above 50 and found a majority (58%) were rated as having poor or very poor outcomes. Individuals with a performance IQ of at least 70 had significantly better outcomes than those with a performance IQ below 70. Within the normal IQ range outcome was very variable and, on a case by case basis, neither verbal nor performance IQ proved to be a consistent indicator of positive outcome. With regards to employment status the authors found that only 8 of the 68 individuals in the sample were competitively employed; 1 was self employed as a fabric printer; 14 worked in supported, sheltered or volunteer employment; and 42 had ‘‘programs’’ or chores through their residential provider. Additionally, more than half (51%) were reported as having no friends.

Clearly these are not BLS defintions being used. (Also note 8/68 = 11.76%)

And actually Gerhardt and Lainer did not themselves conduct that other study which found 81% "unemployment", but rather the quote another study on employment.

In the United States, the University of Miami/Nova Southeastern University CARD (2008) conducted an online survey of approximately 200 families of transition-age and adult constituents with ASD in southern Florida. [...] only 19% of individuals with autism were employed at the time of the survey with 74% of those employed working less than 20 h per week; 85% still lived with parents, siblings, or older relatives. Overall, outcomes were generally regarded as being poor and access to necessary and appropriate services severely limited.

If this needs saying again, using BLS standards, if those 81% who were not employed were also not looking for work, unemployment among them is 0%. Also this study didn't seem to have tried to define "employment" more carefully.

As much as another answer here lampoons the National Autistic Society for their methodology and "political motivation", I do not see a great discrepancy between what they report and other research (which is also of similar quality in terms of methodology). What NAS actually say:

We surveyed over 2,000 autistic adults, or people responding on their behalf, to ask them about their experiences of finding and keeping a job.

  • only 16% are in full-time paid work. Only 32% are in some kind of paid work (full and part-time combined), compared to 47% of disabled people and 80% of non-disabled people*

  • over three quarters (77%) who are unemployed say they want to work

  • four in ten say they've never worked.

[*] Both of these stats are from the Office for National Statistics (2016) Dataset: A08: Labour market status of disabled people (20 July 2016).

So there is actually a problem however in how NAS were cited in Griffiths et al. Perhaps what happened is that Griffiths et al. mis-interpreting that 16% and ignored the larger 32% which includes part-time work. (Or maybe NAS updated their page in the meantime, I don't know...) On the other hand, Griffiths et al. do pick from the other studies (e.g. from Howlin's) only the "competitively employed" and report only those as "employed". So maybe Griffiths et al. made a deliberate choice that they applied uniformly across the studies they looked at, i.e. to pick/report only the full-time/competitive employment as "employment"... Alas they were not explicit in this choice (and they also used "unemployment" simply as the complement of employment, even though that is a "no no" for an economist; in an economist's world/words "lack of occupation and willingness to work are not sufficient to classify people as unemployed".)

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  • Currently this is a very long comment on another answer. Could you please edit it into a stand-alone answer that will withstand changes to the other answer or a change in which is accepted? – Oddthinking Dec 30 '20 at 13:31
  • @Oddthinking: what do you mean by "edit it into a stand-alone answer"? It is one as far as I'm concerned. The National Autistic Society study may be dodgy, but small scale studies is what the evidence here is about, and there other studies with similar findings. – Fizz Dec 30 '20 at 13:43
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    Imagine if the author of the currently accepted answer saw your criticism and deleted it, or the OP decided they liked your answer better, and accepted it. The opening paragraph would be meaningless, and the actual answer to the question (e.g. Yes, No, Yes to the first claim but No to the second, whatever) would be unclear. Can you please make it so your answer doesn't depend on others and clearly indicates what you argue the answer is? – Oddthinking Dec 30 '20 at 13:51
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    @Fizz To the degree that this answer was a comment, it made some valid points. I've edited in an attempt to be more fair to the NAS, and also acknowledged your further examinations on the matter. I'd welcome any further comments you might have on the result. – Ben Barden Dec 30 '20 at 22:30

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