Organization for Autism Research

Comparing General Education to Special Education: What are the Differences?

Students with autism are educated in a variety of settings including general education (GE) and self-contained (SC) classrooms. In GE placements, students are educated with their peers by a general education teacher. In self-contained settings, students are educated with other students who have a disability by a special education teacher. Researchers Jennifer Kurth, PhD, at Northern Arizona University and Ann M. Mastergeorge, PhD, at the University of California, Davis studied the differences between GE and SC in Impact of Setting and Instructional Context for Adolescents with Autism.

They tracked classroom factors such as amount of time engaged in a task and access to general education curriculum for 15 students. The students were also part of a larger study looking at placement practices, which found that placement was determined by school practice rather than student ability. Thirty peers without autism, five special education teachers, and nine GE teachers also participated in this study.

Research assistants observed the participants in math and language arts classes. Students with autism in GE classrooms were matched with students without disabilities in the classroom. Students with autism in SC classrooms were matched with other students in the class who had disabilities. Researchers used this information to compare how the students with autism used their time compared to other students in the class.

Interestingly, students with autism in both the GE and SC classroom used their time similarly to their peers. Students with autism did receive modified curricula in the GE classroom but this was the only difference between their classroom experience and typical peers.

The researchers found that the use of time by teachers in GE and SC classrooms varied greatly. Students in SC were only engaged in an educational task 60 percent of the time with 30 percent of time being spent on a break. In contrast, students in GE were engaged 91 percent of the time. Students in GE settings spent the majority of time receiving whole-group instruction while in SC settings the students received individual instruction.

While all students are supposed to access the general education curriculum as much as possible, SC students only had access to adapted curriculum 0.1 percent of the time. While both GE and SC classrooms had para-educators, they were used very differently depending on setting. In GE, the para-educators assisted all students while checking in with the students who had autism. In SC, the para-educators provided much of the individual instruction.

Students in GE scored higher on academic achievement tests, but this may not be due to participation in GE. It may be that students who would score higher are more frequently placed in GE settings.

Because this study had a small number of participants and only four observation times per participant, it would need to be repeated on a larger scale in multiple locations to draw any major conclusions. This study does raise concerns about the type and quality of instruction students receive in SC classrooms. On a positive note, this study suggests that students with autism are engaged in learning to the same degree as their peers in both GE and SC settings.


Kurth, J. & Mastergeorger, A. (2012). Impact of Setting and Instructional Context for Adolescents with Autism. Journal of Special Education46 (1), 26-48.

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