Impact, ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’, (RCUK) is something researchers are continually encouraged to explore in their work. At Goldsmiths, we strive towards demonstrating impact in our work by considering how findings can be applied within a wider economic and societal context. For instance, the Goldsmiths Action Lab (GOAL) has recently been set up to bring together researchers and research users involved in several projects investigating typical and atypical development. Part of this research includes autism and employment.
What about autism?
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by impaired social communication and social interaction; and restrictive or repetitive behaviours, activities or interests (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Individuals with autism may have difficulties interacting with peers or taking turns in conversations and may excessively adhere to routine or have high levels of resistance to change. Around 1% of the population in England has a diagnosis of autism (Brugha et al., 2011) with a male to female ratio of approximately 4:1 (Chakrabarti & Fombonne, 2001). Autism is considered a spectrum with individuals, like everyone else, demonstrating peaks and troughs in abilities (Hill, 2014).
Despite most individuals with autism now being aged 18 years or above, we know very little about life for these adults (Howlin, 2013). This is worrying because adults with autism report feeling socially isolated (Balfe & Tantam, 2010) and may experience poorer mental health than those without autism (Hirvikoski & Blomqvist, 2014; Joshi et al., 2013) with depression commonly reported (Moss et al., 2015). Low levels of employment are also reported for adults with autism (Shattuck et al., 2012). This is an economic issue as the national annual cost for adults with autism in the United Kingdom has been calculated at £25 billion with 36% of this total attributable to lost employment for the individual with autism (Knapp et al., 2009). Individuals with autism often fall into the gaps in-between mental health and learning disability services and may lack specialist support once formal education finishes. This places these adults at risk of social exclusion. However, employment may be a major route to independence and social inclusion – and this has important consequences for quality of life (Parr & Hunter, 2014).
What about impact?
Legislative changes have recently appeared alongside autism and employment research. In 2009, The Autism Act was introduced as the first disability-specific law in England. A duty was placed on the government to produce an Adult Autism Strategy called ‘Fulfilling and Rewarding Lives’ (which emerged in March 2010) and to produce guidance for local councils and health authorities to implement this. The strategy revealed that helping adults with autism into employment is a key priority. However, an independent report in July 2012 (National Audit Office, 2012) claimed the impact of helping adults with autism into work is ‘not clear’. After feedback from adults with autism, parents, carers and professionals, the government published a new strategy (Think Autism) in April 2014. New statutory guidancewas published in March 2015 which indicated local authorities and the NHS must now include employment in needs assessments.
What happens next?
Considering autism and employment from a research perspective could have many implications for future research, clinical practice and government legislation. This research could contribute to the current limited knowledge surrounding autism in adulthood. Furthermore, this research aligns with clinical guidelines recommending individual supported employment as a psychosocial intervention for adults with autism (National Institute for Care and Health Excellence, 2012). This also links to funding opportunities for specialist adult autism and employment services. Few of these services exist and evidence-based support from research within autism and employment means adults with autism could benefit from specialist supported employment services. Finally, if local authorities and the NHS are obliged to support adults with autism to gain and maintain employment (for instance, through supported internships and apprenticeships) then research findings could provide a strong basis for the creation of specialist employment services. The impact from this really could support individuals with autism into fulfilling and rewarding lives.