Limited research is available on learners with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), their families, and their schools in low to middle income countries. The main aim of the current research was to describe the demographics of learners with ASD, their families, and their schools, in South Africa (SA), from the perspective of caregivers and school principals.
A quantitative survey design was used for three separate studies. Participants were caregivers of learners attending autism-specific public and autism-specific private schools in SA, and the relevant school principals. Data were collected by means of self-completed questionnaires.
In Study 1 learners were identified late which set a trajectory of late intervention. Underlying factors leading to late identification appear to be unfamiliarity with ASD, limited services and schools for children with ASD. Late speech and language emergence were cited by most parents as the reason why they became concerned about the child. Speech-language therapists (SLTs) should raise awareness about the early signs of ASD and advocate early communication intervention.
Certain socio-demographic characteristics of the families in Study 2 closely reflected the characteristics of the national majority of families in SA. Families live on a relatively low monthly household income and spend a significant amount of their income on educational and therapeutic services. There should ideally be more financial support for families of learners with ASD.
In Gauteng, Study 3 showed that autism-specific public schools make a significant contribution to educating learners with ASD, compared to autism-specific private schools. However, learners were missing out on early intervention. There is a need for more educational services accommodating learners with ASD in the whole of SA.
The studies provided a large body of data on learners attending autism-specific schools in SA. Future conducive research should focus on other contextual factors affecting early intervention.