Special Education:

Children With Autism

GAO-05-220: Published: Jan 14, 2005. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2005.

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According to the Autism Society of America, about 1.5 million Americans are currently living with some form of autism. This figure includes over 100,000 school-aged children diagnosed with autism served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the primary federal legislation that addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities. As the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased, interest in understanding how children diagnosed with autism are being served under IDEA has grown. In this report we are describing the tend in the number of children diagnosed with autism served under IDEA, the services provided to these children, the estimated per pupil expenditures for educating children with autism, and approaches to their education.

The number of children diagnosed with autism served under IDEA has increased by more than 500 percent in the last decade. In 2002, data collected for the Department of Education indicated that nearly 120,000 children diagnosed with autism were being served under IDEA. This substantial increase may be due to a number of factors, including better diagnoses and a broader definition of autism. The services provided to children with autism depend on the needs of the child. These services may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, and the services of special education teachers. As with other children with disabilities, children with autism are eligible for special education services under IDEA in accordance with their individualized education programs (programs established by a team familiar with the needs of the child). The average per pupil expenditure for educating a child with autism was estimated by SEEP to be over $18,000 in the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent year for which data were available. This estimate was nearly three times the expenditure for a typical regular education student who did not receive special education services and was among the highest per pupil expenditures for school-age children receiving special education services in public schools. Finally, the National Research Council report offered several key features of successful approaches to the education of children with autism, including early intervention soon after the diagnosis of autism, which can generally occur by the age of 3. The report also offered guidelines regarding educational objectives for children with autism, including the development of social skills and expressive and receptive language and communication skills.

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