Placing adults with autism in more independent work environments may actually help alleviate symptoms of the developmental disorder, researchers say.

In a new study of 153 adults on the spectrum ages 19 to 53, researchers found that where people with autism work appears to influence their development and that employment may play a “therapeutic role” for this group.

“We found that if you put the person with autism in a more independent vocational placement, this led to measurable improvements in their behaviors and daily living skills overall,” said Julie Lounds Taylor of Vanderbilt University’s Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, a lead author of the study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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Researchers assessed the individuals — largely by interviewing their parents — at two points during the study with more than five years in between, looking at whether they had restricted interest areas, displayed repetitive behaviors or experienced communication or social difficulties, among other autism symptoms.

Parents were also asked what type of work — if any — their son or daughter participated in and how well they handled independent living skills like personal care and making meals.

Sheltered workshop environments were the most common placement for the adults with autism studied, with about half spending at least some time in such settings at both the beginning and end of the research period, researchers said. Meanwhile about 20 percent were working independently in competitive employment or seeking a degree. Others had no job, were strictly volunteering or worked with some level of support in the community.

Participants in the study represented the range of those on the autism spectrum, with some having average or very high IQ scores while about 70 percent were also diagnosed with intellectual disability.

Those with greater independence in their work activities exhibited more improvement in symptoms, behavior and daily living skills over the years, the study found.

Previous research suggests that unemployment and underemployment are serious issues for those with autism, with various studies indicating that anywhere between 20 and 75 percent of adults with the developmental disorder have no formal daily activities, the researchers said.

Much like the experience of typically-developing people, Taylor said the new findings highlight how important employment can be for the overall well-being of those on the spectrum.

“The majority of research on autism has focused on early childhood, but autism is a lifelong disorder with impairments that limit quality of life throughout adulthood,” she said. “We must continue to examine the factors that promote well-being and quality of life for adults with autism and other disabilities as a whole.”

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