Updates from the Kasari Lab

In April 2021, Alexandra Sturm, Ph.D., a former UCLA Human Development and Psychology doctoral student in the Kasari Lab and current professor at LMU, published a paper entitled “Who gains and who loses? Sociodemographic disparities in access to special education services among autistic students” in Autism Research (Sturm, Williams, & Kasari, 2021). The researchers looked at the school-based special education services provided to students with autism compared to those with intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities. Sturm, Williams, & Kasari (2021) found that Hispanic and Latinx autistic students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) receive the fewest school-based services of any ethnicity group, and White autistic students are more likely to receive more special education services than any other group. Additionally, autistic students who qualify for free and reduced lunch were found to receive fewer special education services in school than students who do not receive free or reduced lunch, illustrating the connection between family income and school services.

In a recent interview with the Simons Foundation, Dr. Sturm along with Fernanda Castellon and Karolyn Maurer (two doctoral students under the mentorship and in the lab of Dr. Connie Kasari) shared the significance of these findings for families. Maurer shared how Hispanic non-English speaking students may be evaluated later as schools do not want to mislabel students. But for children who do have a disability requiring school-based services, the “wait and see” approach may delay special education services. Parents of children who are non-English speakers and low income face multiple barriers to school-based special education services. These parents may struggle to access special education knowledge and resources, as some parents “do not have the knowledge of the special education process that they need to successfully advocate for their children,” says Castellon. “Parents who are not English speakers and who are first-generation immigrants may experience additional barriers, including legal, transportation, and job security issues, among many others.”

The study’s findings suggest that sociodemographic characteristics may be associated with special education service access. Although we are unable to pinpoint the exact barriers to educational success, these findings allow us to better understand special education service barriers and potentially begin to address them.

Castellon, Sturm, Maurer, and others are conducting additional research projects using these data. Topics include English learners with Autism, patterns of alternate curriculum, and trends in behavior intervention services. The Kasari Lab is also undertaking multiple school-based intervention studies targeting minority autistic children under the Autism Intervention Research Network for Behavioral Health (AIR-B). For more information about current research projects please contact Consuelo Garcia at cogarcia@mednet.ucla.edu.