A new study indicates that rates of depression rise significantly in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) if they experience a job loss or reduction in hours or pay.

“Though unemployment has been linked to mental health problems in the general population,” Julie Lounds Taylor and colleagues say, “this relationship is seldom considered among adults with autism.” The COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers say, provided a natural opportunity to study this issue.

Job loss covid autism

The researchers used online surveys to collect data from individuals with ASD at two times: just before widespread social distancing took place, and again ten weeks later. At both points, the researchers also measured participants’ depressive symptoms.

Of the 144 young adults who were employed at the first point, the researchers say, more than one-third reported employment changes during the first two months of the pandemic. In most cases, these involved losing a job or having their hours or pay reduced.

“Controlling for Time 1 depressive symptoms,” they say, “young adults who experienced job loss/reduction had significantly higher depressive symptoms at Time 2 than those without an employment change.”

The researchers say, “Our study is the first to find that employment changes— particularly job loss or reduction—had a significant negative effect on the mental health of young adults with ASD compared to stable employment. This association suggests important directions for future research and practice—both as the economy recovers from COVID-19 and likely beyond. Better supporting adults with ASD in the workplace may not only decrease the likelihood of job loss, but also combat the exceedingly high rates of depression in this group.”

The researchers also note that currently, treatments for individuals with ASD who are diagnosed with depression focus almost exclusively on psychotropic medications or cognitive behavioral therapy, while the role of day-to-day issues such as unemployment is rarely taken into account. “Findings from this study,” they say, “suggest that employment changes (and likely other daily experiences) may need to be considered when treating depression in this population.”

As part of their study, the researchers asked participants about their perceptions concerning the impact of job changes. Interestingly, they say, “we observed that perceived negative impact and perceived positive impact were associated with higher depressive symptoms, relative to those who perceived that the employment change had no impact on their wellbeing.” This suggests, they say, that any perceived impact of a job change—either positive or negative— may increase the risk of depression for individuals with ASD.

The researchers conclude that “targeting the employment situations of adults with ASD may represent a critical avenue for improving their psychological health.” However, they note that their findings need to be replicated because their study group was fairly small and the study focused solely on short-term job changes.

“Job loss predicts worsening depressive symptoms for young adults with autism: A COVID-19 natural experiment,” Julie Lounds Taylor, Ryan E. Adams, Florencia Pezzimenti, Shuting Zheng, and Somer L. Bishop, Autism Research, October 2021 (free online). Address: Julie Lounds Taylor, Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, PMB 40-230 Appleton Pl., Nashville, TN 37203, [email protected]

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2021