Youth with Autism:

Federal Agencies Should Take Additional Action to Support Transition-Age Youth

GAO-17-352: Published: May 4, 2017. Publicly Released: May 4, 2017.

Multimedia:

  • PODCAST: Youth with Autism Transitioning to Adulthood

    Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder are less likely than youth with other disabilities to transition successfully from high school to work or college. What kinds of challenges do these youth face as they transition to adulthood? And what services do schools offer to help with this transition?

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Contact:

Jacqueline M. Nowicki
(617) 788-0580
nowickij@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

According to GAO's nationwide survey of school district special education directors, GAO estimates that about 85 percent of districts in school year 2015-16, provided youth with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) services such as instruction on life, social, and behavioral skills, as they transition from high school to adulthood. ASD is a group of complex developmental disorders characterized by difficulties with social interactions, communication, and repetitive behaviors. Districts provided these services as part of the planning for the transition to adulthood required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Fewer, though still a majority of, districts reported providing certain types of employment-related supports. For example, GAO estimates that 69 percent provided work experiences and 63 percent provided job coaching. While the majority of districts reported providing transition services to students with ASD, the services provided varied by factors such as the size and poverty level of the district, according to GAO's analysis of survey responses.

Youth with ASD face key challenges transitioning from high school to adulthood, such as untimely transition planning by school districts, complex adult service systems, and lack of job opportunities, according to stakeholders. IDEA requires districts to begin providing transition services when students with disabilities reach age 16, with the option to start earlier. However, according to GAO's prior work and stakeholders GAO interviewed, providing discretion in this area may not serve some students well. School officials, advocates, and others report that earlier transition planning—with age 14 commonly cited—can have multiple benefits such as allowing more time to obtain important work and academic experiences; however, the Department of Education (Education) is not funding research on the appropriate age to begin transition planning. Unless Education, which administers IDEA, examines the merits of earlier transition planning, policymakers may not have critical information when considering changes to IDEA. Currently, about 32 percent of districts begin transition planning when students are older than age 14, according to GAO's analysis of survey responses.

While the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) has facilitated collaboration across its member agencies, including Education, to support research for transition-age youth with ASD, it has missed opportunities to collaborate with relevant nonmember agencies. Specifically, the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education, and Support Act of 2014 calls for the IACC to include in its strategic plan, as practicable, services for individuals with ASD. However, HHS has not regularly engaged certain federal agencies that provide services or financial assistance to transition-age youth with ASD, but are not IACC members, such as the Departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development. These agencies are not part of working groups tasked with updating the current strategic plan nor has HHS invited them to join the IACC. As a result, IACC may continue to miss opportunities to leverage the knowledge of other agencies—a leading practice for effective federal interagency collaboration—as it works to fulfill its expanded responsibilities under the Act and improve the well-being of individuals with ASD.

Why GAO Did This Study

Research suggests that youth with ASD are less likely than youth with other disabilities to be successful in transitioning to work and postsecondary education and therefore, they may face a lifetime of reliance on public assistance. GAO was asked to examine services provided under IDEA to assist youth with ASD in transitioning to adulthood. For this report, GAO examined (1) services and supports provided to assist youth with ASD in transitioning to adulthood, (2) key challenges in successfully transitioning, and (3) the extent to which federal agencies have collaborated to assist in the transition.

GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations and conducted a nationally generalizable survey of 588 school districts to gather information on services provided in school year 2015-16. GAO also interviewed federal officials and state and local stakeholders in three states selected to highlight a mix of localities with and without initiatives serving this population, urbanicity, and geographic dispersion, and GAO evaluated federal collaborative efforts against leading practices.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations to federal agencies, including one to Education to examine the merits and implications of amending IDEA to require earlier transition planning and one to HHS to enhance collaboration with non-IACC member agencies. Education neither agreed nor disagreed with the IDEA recommendation. The agencies generally agreed with or did not comment on other recommendations.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Education neither agreed nor disagreed with this recommendation and has not taken steps to implement it.

    Recommendation: To determine whether IDEA's current transition age requirement allows youth with disabilities, including those with ASD, the time needed to plan and prepare for the transition to adult life, the Secretary of Education should examine outcomes for students when transition services begin at age 16 and the merits and implications of amending IDEA to lower the age at which school districts are to begin providing transition services to students with disabilities, such as 14.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2018, HHS reported that it has engaged non-member federal agencies in its activities, including requesting information from the Department of Labor on any autism-related research projects for fiscal year 2016 to be included in the annual IACC Portfolio Analysis Reports. HHS also stated it will continue to identify opportunities to engage input from federal agencies and that it welcomes the opportunity to work with any federal agency that has programs that may impact the autism community. In September 2018, HHS reported that the IACC has regularly engaged key non-member federal agencies that serve or provide support to young adults with autism in IACC activities. HHS points out additional steps taken towards engaging key non-member federal agencies with the recent appointments of the Social Security Administration and the Indian Health Service to the IACC. HHS also reported that the Department of Labor and the National Science Foundation contributed to the IACC Strategic Plan published in 2017, and that the Department of Labor participated at a recent IACC meeting. HHS further stated that the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development have not been involved with the IACC but may be interested in participating in the future. HHS added that non-member agencies may engage with the IACC in various ways, such as by presenting at IACC meetings or workshops and participation in working groups related to IACC efforts, or could request membership on the IACC and that other non-member federal agencies may want to engage with the IACC may participate in IACC efforts if there was sufficient interest on their part. These efforts indicate that HHS is engaging key non-member federal agencies that serve or provide supports to young adults with autism in IACC activities and has also developed a track record of conducting such efforts in a regular or routine manner. We would encourage the agency to continue inviting nonmembers to regularly engage in meetings, workshops, or other activities.

    Recommendation: To improve collaboration and leverage the knowledge of key federal agencies serving youth with ASD, the Secretary of HHS should regularly engage key non-member federal agencies that serve or provide supports to young adults with autism in IACC activities. This could include, for example, directly engaging and soliciting input from federal agencies on the IACC strategic plan, or inviting other federal agencies that serve or provide supports to young adults with autism to become IACC members.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Education agreed with this recommendation but has not yet taken action to implement it.

    Recommendation: To implement the goals and policy priorities of the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan, the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) workgroup--the Secretaries of HHS, Education, Department of Labor, and the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration--should develop a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: HHS agreed with this recommendation but stated that the voluntary nature of the FPT precludes definitive implementation plans. We maintain, however, that being a voluntary initiative does not preclude the FPT from establishing long-term milestones and clarifying roles and responsibilities. Without a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments, it is less likely that the priorities outlined in the Federal Youth Transition Plan will be achieved.

    Recommendation: To implement the goals and policy priorities of the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan, the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) workgroup--the Secretaries of HHS, Education, Department of Labor, and the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration--should develop a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In June of 2018, SSA reported that as a key partner in the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) it works toward accomplishing the goals laid out in the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan that are within their purview and authority; however, SSA noted that the voluntary, ad-hoc nature of the FPT precludes definitive implementation plans. We continue to maintain that being a voluntary initiative does not preclude the FPT from establishing long-term milestones and clarifying roles and responsibilities. Further, a long-term plan can be changed, and need not be definitive. Without a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments, it is less likely that the priorities outlined in the 2020 Plan will be achieved.

    Recommendation: To implement the goals and policy priorities of the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan, the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) workgroup--the Secretaries of HHS, Education, Department of Labor, and the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration--should develop a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In May of 2018, the Department of Labor (DOL) reported several efforts by member federal agencies of the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) to collaborate to make progress towards meeting the policy priorities outlined in the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan. In addition, DOL reported it is currently working to formalize the FPT roles and responsibilities and has developed detained timelines for FPT meetings. We are encouraged by this progress, and will close the recommendation once DOL provides documentation of roles and responsibilities and timelines for implementing milestones.

    Recommendation: To implement the goals and policy priorities of the 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan, the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) workgroup--the Secretaries of HHS, Education, Department of Labor, and the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration--should develop a long-term implementation plan that includes milestones and specific agency roles and assignments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

 

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