Many people with autism are not getting the assistance they’re entitled to from a government program that’s supposed to help individuals with disabilities land jobs.

Access to services through vocational rehabilitation varies dramatically from one state to the next, according to a study published recently in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

The vocational rehabilitation program is paid for jointly through federal and state funds and offers individuals with disabilities help exploring job opportunities and finding work in addition to support once they are employed.

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Researchers looked at U.S. Department of Education data from 2014 to 2016 on nearly 36,000 transition-age youth with autism who applied for vocational rehabilitation services between the ages of 14 and 24. They found significant differences in the number of young people on the spectrum who accessed vocational rehabilitation services, the likelihood that those services began during high school, whether or not an employment plan was established in a timely manner and the odds of being employed when services were complete.

“We found huge gaps across states,” said Anne Roux, a research scientist at Drexel University’s A.J. Drexel Autism Institute who led the study. “Nearly 90 percent of youth in Pennsylvania received VR services after they were found eligible, but only half of youth in neighboring New Jersey received services.”

“Employment specialists in every state know it is critical to connect students with autism to VR services as quickly as possible. Yet, only 10 percent of youth with autism in Montana began their VR services during high school, compared to 77 percent in Oklahoma,” Roux said.

In four states — Alabama, Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington — at least 70 percent of those with autism had jobs after getting services from vocational rehabilitation, the study found. But that outcome certainly was not guaranteed. At the high end, 76 percent of Washington state residents with autism exited vocational rehabilitation services with a job compared to a low of 29 percent in Washington, D.C.

Similarly, the researchers noted a 60 percentage point gap across states in the likelihood that employment plans were developed by vocational rehabilitation agencies within the federally-recommended time period.

The study found no trends in state unemployment levels, fiscal policy or the population of young people needing services that would explain the variations. Researchers said that state disability policy and vocational rehabilitation practices were more likely to be at the root of the differences noted.

“Clearly, some states are finding ways to effectively provide VR services for youth with autism. Our next step is to learn what these higher performing states are doing differently than others,” Roux said.

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