Special Education Autism Classification
As increasing numbers of students are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), schools are under greater pressure to provide appropriate special education services. Empirical evidence is needed to inform special education providers about the characteristics of students with ASD who are served under different eligibility classifications and to describe the placement and program characteristics associated with educational growth. Some recent studies suggest that severity of impairment due to ASD and intellectual capacity are associated with special education under the Autism classification. However, there is a paucity of information on this topic from recent studies in populous, diverse, regions.
Objectives: The purpose of this study is to describe the characteristics of ASD children associated with an Autism classification for special education services in metropolitan New Jersey.
Study data were from the New Jersey Autism Study (NJAS), an ASD surveillance investigation conducted in Essex, Union, Hudson and Ocean counties, over 5 successive cycles (2000, 2002, 2006, 2008 and 2010). NJAS data were based on review, analysis and independent ASD case-determination derived from information contained in health and education records. Demographic information, level of impairment due to ASD, level of cognitive ability and other case-specific data, including the educational and program classification of children, was analyzed. Socioeconomic status (SES) was represented by a community-level index. Analysis was performed using descriptive statistics and Chi-square tests.
Among 1,985 ASD cases identified by multiple cycles of active surveillance, > 95% were receiving special education services. Forty four percent of these children (881 children) were served under the Autism classification, the most prevalent eligibility type accorded children with ASD. ASD diagnostic subtype (Autistic Disorder vs. PDD-NOS) was associated with Autism classification, with 76% of Autism-classified students meeting the diagnostic pattern of Autistic Disorder, as opposed to PDD-NOS (p<.001). Severity of impairment due to ASD was significantly associated with Autism classification, such that 75% of Autism classified students had moderate or severe levels of impairment (p=.001). Cognitive ability was also negatively associated with Autism classification, with 40% of Autism-classified students showing an intelligence quotient (IQ) below 70 (p=.001). Interestingly, ASD children with comorbidities—both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and (other) psychiatric disorders—showed a lower likelihood of being Autism-classified (p=.001). Neither SES or race, nor socioeconomic status of ASD cases was associated with likelihood of being served under an Autism classification.
The study findings suggest that the most significant factors contributing to an Autism classification for special education services are ASD diagnostic subtype, severity of impairment due to ASD and cognitive impairment. ASD students with co-morbid diagnoses usually received services under other eligibility classifications, including Other Health Impaired (OHI) and Emotionally disturbed. We did not identify significant associations between sex, race and SES and Autism classification, indicating apparent lack of obvious disparities in this regard. The findings are informative because they represent multiple large, complete ASD populations from a specific metropolitan region, but our findings may not be representative of Autism classification patterns in other states.