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Facts From NLTS2: Secondary School Experiences of Students With Autism
NCSER 2007-3005
April 2007

Secondary School Experiences of Students with Autism

Autism is recognized to be a "complex disorder" as well as "a spectrum of disorders" that includes Asperger's syndrome and pervasive developmental disorders (Seltzer et al. 2004, p. 234). Diagnostic criteria for autism focus on impairments affecting socialization, verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior (Filipek et al. 2000; Lord and McGee 2001). The number of students diagnosed with autism has been increasing over time (Volkmar et al. 2004); almost 194,000 students ages 6 through 21 nationwide are identified as having autism and receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (U.S. Department of Education 2006a).

Despite the increase in this population and the challenges they pose for schools, few studies have focused on the educational attainments of youth with autism (Seltzer et al. 2004). Little is known about what these students experience in high school classrooms. At the national level, information on the classroom experiences of secondary students with autism has been limited to data on where students are educated—whether classes are taken in general education or special education settings (U.S. Department of Education 2006b).

This fact sheet provides a national picture of the secondary school experiences of students with autism who received special education services under the auspices of school districts, by addressing the following questions: What is the pattern of course taking of secondary-school-age students with autism and in what settings are courses taken? What are the characteristics of classroom instruction provided to students with autism, and how do they differ in general, vocational, and special education classes? What types of accommodations, services, and supports do schools provide to students with autism?

These questions are addressed by using data collected from school staff during Wave 1 of The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2)1. Mail surveys were conducted with staff in the schools attended by NLTS2 sample members in the spring of the 2001-02 school year—students were 14 through 18 years old at the time2. School staff who were knowledgeable about students' overall school programs and about their special and vocational education courses were surveyed3. In addition, for NLTS2 sample members who were reported by school staff to be enrolled in at least one general education academic class, teachers of the first such class in each student's school week were surveyed4. These data offer a national perspective5 on the secondary school experiences of students with autism who received special education services from or through their school districts when they were sampled in 2000.

The terminology for classifying students with autism that is used here is guided by federal regulations for the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (P.L. 105-17; Knoblauch and Sorenson 1998). Students included in this category were identified by their school districts as having autism as a primary disability. Criteria for identification as a student with autism differ from state to state (Mandell and Palmer 2005), resulting in wide variation among students in the autism disability category. For example, in regard to communication abilities, 13 percent of students with autism experience no trouble communicating with others, 31 percent have little trouble conversing, 38 percent have a lot of trouble, and 18 percent are unable to communicate at all (Wagner, Levine et al. 2003)6. The variation in criteria used and the resulting variation in the ability of students included in the autism category suggest that this category includes those identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and conditions such as Asperger Syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder.


1 The National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2), being conducted by SRI International for the U.S. Department of Education, has a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 students who were in at least seventh grade and receiving special education services in the 2000–01 school year. NLTS2 students were chosen from rosters of students receiving special education from or through public school districts. Districts were instructed to include all students for whom they were responsible, regardless of where they went to school or the type of school attended (e.g., a residential school in another state). Approximately 1,000 youth with autism are included in the sample. This sample is designed to represent a total of 1,838,848 youth with disabilities and 14,637 youth with autism, according to federal child count figures (U.S. Department of Education 2002). See for more information about the study.

2 Most of the data presented in this fact sheet also are included in Wagner, Newman et al. (2003) and Levine, Marder, and Wagner (2004).

3 This survey is referred to as the student's school program survey.

4 This survey is referred to as the general education teacher survey.

5 Data reported here are population estimates from data weighted to represent students in the autism category who attended school in the kinds of districts from which they were sampled.

6 See Wagner, Levine et al. (2003) for further discussion of functional differences among those categorized in the autism disability category.