Autism in Adults

Note: In 2011, AOTA identified autism as an emerging niche in occupational therapy. It has since become mainstream, so newer content appears elsewhere on this site (search Autism). This page has been retained for historical information. Learn more about the 2011 Emerging Niche series here.

AutismWhy emerging? The American Psychiatric Association added autism to the list of known mental disorders in 1980. More than 30 years later, an estimated 300,000 people with autism are age 22 years or older, and the 1.5 million Americans with autism get older every day.1 Nearly every family with a young adult with autism has to decide what happens after high school when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandated services conclude—recent studies found that relatively few young adults with autism receive assistance after high school.2The growing population of adults with autism increases the need for transition services to adulthood and other therapy services.

Get Involved: Teresa May-Benson, ScD, OTR/L, has been working with adults with autism for the past 30 years, starting at a day rehabilitation program for adults with disabilities and continuing to her current position at a private occupational therapy practice specializing in sensory integration. Although many occupational therapy practitioners prefer working with children with developmental disabilities, May-Benson says that working with adults is very rewarding. "My clients taught me to never underestimate how much they know and understand even if they appear very impaired."

May-Benson has noticed more awareness of the need for services for adults with autism, but she believes it is not where it needs to be. The adults who participate in adult services programs usually have severe involvement, but those "less involved clients" with autism still need to have access to occupational therapy services. May-Benson advises practitioners working with adults with autism to understand that intervention is often less about learning new skills and more about improving quality of life, living comfortably in the world, and having positive relationships.

"Occupational therapy services with this population are necessary throughout the lifespan," says May-Benson. "We need more services and more practitioners who understand and can work with this population."



  1. Faherty, J. (2009, June 12). Children of autism approach adult world. Retrieved May 10, 2011, from

  2. Henry, T. A. (2011). Autism patients lose access to key services after high school. Retrieved May 10, 2011, from