Who gains and who loses? Sociodemographic disparities in access to special education services among autistic students

Autism Res. 2021 Apr 26. doi: 10.1002/aur.2517. Online ahead of print.


Little is known about differences in the allocation of special education services to students with autism compared with students with other primary learning differences (e.g., intellectual disability [ID], specific learning disability [SLD]) and the comparative impact of sociodemographic factors on special education service receipt. The present study aimed to compare allocation of services (i.e., quantity and types) between students eligible for special education services under autism, SLD and ID, and to identify differences in sociodemographic predictors (e.g., race, neighborhood income) of service allocation. Data were culled from special education administrative records from a large urban, primarily Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish-serving school district from academic years 2011-2012 to 2016-2017. Participants included N = 76,428 students (Nautism = 18,151, NSLD = 54,001, NID = 4,276) ages 2-18. Results showed that autistic students received, on average, more services than students with SLD. Services received by students served under autism and SLD eligibility were more congruent with areas of need (e.g., language, occupational therapy) relative to students served under ID. Student-level socioeconomic status (free and reduced lunch) was more positively predictive of the number of special education services received than the neighborhood income of the school the student attended. Finally, the most significant racial disparities in service allocation were observed among students served under autism eligibility. The present study demonstrates the critical role of economic resources in the quantity and types of services received, and the desirability of a public education for well-resourced families who are possibly best situated to navigate special education services. LAY SUMMARY: An eligibility of autism in special education confers a significant advantage in the number of services a student receives. Disparity in the quantity of special education services exists among autistic students across many sociodemographic factors. Most notably, greater allocation of services to non-Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish, White American, European American, or Middle Eastern American students and students who do not receive free and reduced lunch.

PMID:33904253 | DOI:10.1002/aur.2517