First National Look: Special Education Services Used by Students with Autism


Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have unique characteristics, including difficulties with communication, social interaction and repetitive behavior. To address ASD symptoms, special education programs employ a combination of communication, social and behavioral services and life skills training to help students function most effectively. While it is now commonly accepted that such programs can make a large impact on an ASD student’s functioning, little is known about the types of services children receive at school, as they vary with students’ age, disability severity, and demographics.

As a first step in understanding the types of services used by ASD students, my colleagues and I looked at 14 major special education services provided from the start of preschool until the end of high school. These services relate to

  • Communication (speech and language therapy)
  • Behavioral health and life skills (occupational therapy, for example assistance in performing age-appropriate tasks)
  • Learning supports (study skills tutoring)
  • Technology aids (specialized computer software or hardware)
  • Other aids, case coordination, and special transportation

We analyzed data from three national studies: the Pre-Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS), the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study (SEELS) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study–2 (NLTS2) of high school students. SEELS and NLTS2 were conducted by SRI researchers. These three data sets used comparable methods and included more than 24,000 students nationwide, including 1,380 with ASDs. This gave us a great opportunity to see nationally how special education services changed for students with ASDs throughout their schooling.

Notable findings from our work, which was published online in The Journal of Special Education , include:

  1. The most common special education service provided to ASD students  at all school levels was speech and language therapy, with 67 to 85 percent of students receiving the service. Occupational therapy was the second most commonly received service; it was provided to 65 percent of students in preschool, but to only 24 percent of those in high school. Mental health and learning support services were not readily available to elementary-aged students, and even less so among high school students with ASDs.
  2. More severely impaired students generally received more services. Although key services (speech and language and occupational therapy and behavior management) were provided to most elementary-aged students with ASDs, only high school students with the most severe ASD symptoms received a similar level of those services. While this tells us that special education is providing resources for kids who have more needs, more of these key special education services are needed in high school.
  3. Receipt of some services went up with the age of the student, and some went down, which may reflect the different requirements at each developmental stage.

Our study opens the door to a number of further studies. We hope that the findings will be useful to school systems as they determine what ASD programs are most cost-effective and how to identify students who may benefit from them, but who have been overlooked under current approaches.

Next steps include using advanced statistical methods that simulate a treatment group and control group to see whether receiving specific services makes a difference in student outcomes. Ultimately, we want to figure out which services benefit ASD students and how these services might be supplemented in an effort to best serve the students.

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