According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to education in the least restrictive environment, and placement outside the regular classroom or school environment should occur only when the nature of the child’s disability exceeds a school’s capacity to provide appropriate education. In consideration of the growing number of children being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), there is a need to better understand services provided by the public school system to these children and the extent to which children with ASD in specialized schools differ from those educated in more inclusive settings.
The objective of this study was to assess correlates of specialized public school attendance among children with ASD.
Data from 3,746 school-aged children with ASD were collected from parents who completed a web-based questionnaire about their child as participants of the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) Research study. Parents were asked to report the type of school their child attended; specialized public school was defined as a school for children with special needs. Means and proportions were calculated for demographic and clinical characteristics as a function of whether a child was attending specialized public school. Group differences were tested to identify covariates significant at the p<.05 level that would then be included in an adjusted analysis. Multivariate logistic regression was used to estimate the independent association of these covariates and the type of school attended. Analyses were performed with Stata statistical software, Version 9.2.
Fifteen percent of the sample reported attending specialized public schools (n=520). In the multivariate model, younger age and having a mother with a graduate degree were associated with decreased odds of attending specialized school. Children with Aperger’s (OR=0.30, 95% C.I.:0.21-0.42) or PDD-NOS diagnoses (OR=0.50, 95% C.I.:0.37-0.66) were also significantly less likely to attend specialized schools as compared to children with autistic disorder. A loss of skills was associated with an increased odds of attending a specialized school (OR=1.30, 95% C.I.:1.05-1.60) as were epilepsy and motor delay diagnoses (OR=1.66, 95% C.I.:1.20-2.29 and OR=1.31, 95% C.I.:1.06-1.61, respectively). While significant at the univariate level, neither mental retardation nor any mental health diagnosis remained significantly associated with public school type in the adjusted model.
At the time of the study, fifteen percent of the sample was attending specialized public schools. Not unexpectedly, these children were significantly more impaired than their regular public school peers. Interestingly, a diagnosis of mental retardation or any mental health condition was not associated with school placement. Limitations of this study include our inability to assess the duration of attendance in specialized public schools and whether these children had previously been educated in the general school or classroom environment. Furthermore, there are likely variations in specialized school attendance by state and school district levels, which were not assessed in this study. Nonetheless, characterizing children with ASD who are educated in specialized schools has important implications for the public education system.