About 1 in 6 preschoolers with autism get expelled from their day care program, new research finds.
On average, such kids are about 3 years old when they get kicked out.
While their parents may already harbor concerns, many of these kids “do not as yet have a diagnosis or label,” said study leader Jan Blacher, who added that many preschool teachers are not sufficiently trained to recognize the behaviors that often typify autism.
The result, according to the new study, is a cycle of miscommunication: Teachers and administrators mistakenly attribute the disruption and communication problems that arise from autism as a sign of general misbehavior. Affected kids react with increasing frustration and anxiety. The risk for temper tantrums goes up, and a risk for expulsion grows.
“We were indeed surprised by this finding,” said Blacher, a research professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside.
“It wasn’t what we set out to study,” she said.
“We set out to examine factors that helped young autistic children transition successfully into general classes, in kindergarten [and] first or second grade,” Blacher said, with the focus being on roughly 200 kids between 4 and 7 years of age. About 81% were boys, more than half were white, and all were attending preschool in metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Southern California before the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Parent interviews — as well as information from more than 170 teachers — revealed “that the student-teacher relationship was a key to current and future success at school,” she said.
But when asked about their child’s earlier preschool experience, parents revealed a high “frequency of expulsion” in day care settings, amounting to 16% of kids with autism.
Roughly 8 in 10 parents said their child had been kicked out due to behavior issues. Among them, about a third were expelled for “aggressive” behavior, including screaming, biting, hitting and/or spitting, the study found.
About 10% were expelled because they were unable to pay attention, sit still and/or follow directions. About 20% were expelled for undefined reasons, or due to a combination of both aggressive behavior and attention problems. A lack of toilet training was also a factor.
No matter the cause, Blacher warned that the “collateral damage” is significant.
Parents, she noted, suddenly are forced to find a new school, which is stressful for those who work outside the home. And children may be bewildered, because they are too young to understand why they can’t go back to school.
“Ironically, these were the children most in need of the social interaction [and] language-rich environment of preschool,” Blacher said.
She and her University of Massachusetts co-author Abbey Eisenhower said several steps could be beneficial.
“[We] strongly feel that early child educators, particularly in private settings, would benefit from two types of intervention: training in autism-affirming practices, including when to send a child for referral, and [training in] how to build a more positive and warm relationship with young autistic children,” Blacher said.
Such steps could help assure smooth sailing throughout the early grades for these youngsters, she said.
While researchers were surprised by their findings, Vijay Vasudevan was not.
“The causes of expulsion are complex and not clearly understood,” said Vasudevan, director of data science and evaluation research with Autism Speaks in New York City.
For example, he noted that when parents are asked to review past circumstances, their recollections may differ from notations in school records.
As for how to handle the concern, Vasudevan said teachers, administrators and school systems could be better trained in working with children who have autism or other disabilities.
“Children who are at-risk of being expelled ought to be screened for autism,” Vasudevan advised. “If they are autistic, they should receive services and support that would enable them to stay in school with their peers, and benefit from the education provided at the school.”
The findings were recently published in the journal Exceptional Children.
There’s more about autism at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Jan Blacher, PhD, research professor, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Riverside; Vijay Vasudevan, PhD, director, data science and evaluation research, Autism Speaks, New York City; Exceptional Children, January 2023
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