Gender Disparities in the Allocation of Special Education Services
Research suggests that our difficulties identifying and diagnosing girls with ASD without cognitive impairment (Girelli et al, 2010; Shadduck et al., 2009) may be due to a male bias in our perception of ASD. Girls are described as being better able than boys to “camouflage” their symptoms of ASD (Dworzynski et al., 2012), and yet, The Liability Threshold Model suggests that the less frequently affected gender will be more severely impacted (Tsai, Stewart, & August, 1981). Both perceptions highlight a gap in our ability to recognize ASD in girls. While practitioners look for severe presentations of ASD symptoms, girls with milder forms of ASD mask their challenges. Consequently, girls with ASD are at risk for under identification, and a lack of access to services. Research is needed to examine possible gender discrepancies in the allocation of special education services at school.
The purpose of this study is to examine gender-related disparities in the provision of special education services for students with ASD. If girls receiving special education services have severe symptoms of ASD, then gender differences will be evident in the number of related services listed in the Individual Education Plans (IEP) of children with ASD who are primarily educated in the general education setting.
We examined the related services listed in the IEPs of children with ASD (n=3,966) in a large urban school district. Related services refer to additional supports needed for students with disabilities to benefit from special education. There were a total of 34 categories. Categories were coded as “resource”, or “non-resource”. “Resource” is only available for children with disabilities who are educated in the general education setting. Students qualifying for “resource”, require additional academic (language arts or math), or other (social skills, prevocational education etc.) supports in order to benefit from their placement. “Non-resource” services are available to all children with disabilities, regardless of placement. There were a total of 31 non-resource services, including speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, adapted physical education, physical therapy, or behavior intervention.
This study examined IEP data from children with ASD who received resource services, and were therefore educated in the general education setting (pre-k=75, elementary=2064, secondary=1827). We combined the types of services (“resource’; “non-resource”) to calculate the total number of related-services a child received in one school year. We used ordinal logistic regression to examine the effect of school category (pre-k, elementary, secondary) on gender and related services, and gender on related services.
Gender differences were evident; boys received significantly fewer related services than girls (p < 0.02). School category was not significant, and there was no interaction of school category and gender.
These findings suggest that when girls are identified, their presentation of ASD symptomatology is severe. More research is needed to determine if the under-representation of girls with ASD without cognitive impairment is due to girls masking their symptoms, and due to staff bias in finding only girls with more significant issues.