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Why so many kids with autism get expelled from preschool

A new study finds that about one in six kids with autism are expelled from preschool and daycares. 
 (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
A new study finds that about one in six kids with autism are expelled from preschool and daycares. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

A new study finds that about one in six kids with autism are expelled from preschool and daycare.

Dr. Jan Blacher co-authored the study, and says getting expelled can have severe consequences for kids and their families.

“It is serious and it's very sobering when you think about it,” Blacher says. “These little 3-year-old kids already have a record, if you will”

Study data from 2017 says 250 children are expelled or suspended from preschool per day, at much higher rates than their K-12 counterparts. Blacher sees these preschool expulsions as an educational equity issue, as national studies have shown Black children and other children of color are expelled from preschool at disproportionately higher rates.

“What we worry about is the intersection of children of color and autism,” Blacher says. “Those are kids [that are] so at risk for these devastating experiences.”

3 questions with Dr. Jan Blacher

How do expulsions happen? 

“Many of them, in our sample, were expelled more often from a private than a public program. It happens for several reasons. Most of the children were expelled due to their behavior: Temper tantrums, hitting, yelling.

“But those behaviors themselves tell us something. They shouldn't be immediately construed as being bad behaviors. Dr. Abby Eisenhower, my collaborator, and I would say that those behaviors are related to autism itself. I guess you could think of the role of behavioral problems in very young children as almost communicative, in a way.”

What happens when teachers don’t understand this behavior?

“We're talking about children who are in preschool or child care programs. And very often those teachers are not credentialed and they don't have the required courses in autism. It may be that they don't understand autism or they see these behaviors as something that needs to be fixed or eliminated. And what's the easiest fix? Just remove them from the classroom.

“As researchers in this area, we prefer that teachers see these behaviors as one aspect of neurodiversity among their students and see them as a variety that's more of an asset [instead of] something that detracts from the rest of the class. Also, the teachers may have unrealistic expectations of what “school readiness” is. When they impose those expectations on children that do have trouble communicating and do have trouble regulating their own behaviors, you have a bit of a conflict.”

How can teachers and directors better serve young autistic students? 

“All too often, professionals look to change or modify the autistic child's behavior in order to keep him in the program. But it may be that the program, the teacher or the organization that runs the program needs to change.

“[We should notice] what teachers who have positive and conflict-free relationships with their  autistic kids are doing. We see them as being very autism-affirming and not seeing the children as needing to be fixed.

“We asked teachers what strategies they use to build good relationships with their young autistic children, and the responses were to spend more 1:1 time with them, even if it's five minutes as they come through the door, and share in the child's special interests. If they like cars or kites or kittens, bring other kids into that conversation and most importantly, make the child feel safe in the school environment.”

Gabrielle Healy produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Healy also adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 11, 2023.

Deepa Fernandes Co-Host, Here & Now
Deepa Fernandes joined Here & Now as a co-host in September 2022.


Gabrielle Healy Producer, Here & Now
Gabrielle Healy is a producer at Here & Now.



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