The A.J. Drexel Autism Institute received an anonymous donation of $3.6 million, Drexel University announced Aug. 10. The gift is intended to help fund the Life Course Outcomes Program, a pioneering study about how people with autism change as they age.
According to Paul Shattuck, who leads the Outcomes research, “It’s not like somebody just out of the blue mailed us a check — we actually worked with this particular donor for many months to describe the program of research we’re doing here and to craft an agreement about how the funds will be used.”
Most existing autism studies focus on young children, but what happens when those children grow up?
“The reality is, for the vast majority of people with the diagnosis, they’re going to have autism for their whole lives. In fact, the majority of a typical lifespan is spent in adulthood — 50 to 60 years of one’s life,” Shattuck said. He and his fellow researchers are working to shine a light on the unexplored question.
Currently, over $12 billion a year is spent on special education programs for American high school students on the autism spectrum. These programs work to create what is called a “Transition Plan,” which is supposed to prepare them to either get a job or go on to higher learning. “The shocking thing that we’ve discovered is that, in the first few years after leaving high school, the majority of people with autism are neither working nor getting a higher education,” Shattuck explained.
“They don’t have a job, they don’t have any kind of vocational school involvement or post-secondary education involvement — they’re just disconnected. The system is kind of broken.” Like in many other aid programs, once the child turns 18, the support dwindles.
The Life Course Outcomes Program is addressing this issue in four different ways: spreading information and awareness about autism, looking for better ways to create positive life outcomes, training a new generation of researchers in order to expand the field and conducting long-range studies to better understand how life unfolds for autistic people and those around them.
While there has been a lot of interest in autism research in recent years, there still aren’t many colleges that have support structures in place to help students on the spectrum. Drexel, however, is famous for its autism support program — run by the Autism Institute.
“At any given time here at Drexel, we have somewhere around 30-35 undergraduate students who have autism and are receiving assistance to help them succeed in their college studies,” Shattuck said. Implementing similar programs in campuses across the country is an important step in improving the way that autism is handled nationally.
The Drexel Autism Support Program is just one of the many ambitious new initiatives started by the Institute, which is only two years old. It has some very impressive goals, which it will be working towards in the coming years; however, its plans are powered by a simple motivation, as Shattuck told DrexelNow: “People on the autism spectrum are valuable members of our community. They have roles to play, dreams to achieve, and contributions to make.”
With this thought in mind, the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute is paving the way for autism research into uncharted territory and working to help a demographic that has previously been ignored by virtually all other research institutions.