One in six autistic children expelled from ECEC: UC Riverside research
The Sector > Research > One in six autistic children expelled from ECEC: UC Riverside research

One in six autistic children expelled from ECEC: UC Riverside research

by Freya Lucas

April 20, 2023
A blonde girl in a green hooded towel stands on the beach

Roughly one in six children living with autism are expelled from early childhood education and care (ECEC) programs, new research from the University of California, Riverside has shown, with the average age of expulsion being 3.3 years old. 


The consequences for these children, researchers say, are chilling. Once they enter school, previously expelled children face more conflict with, and dependency on their teachers, among other difficulties, the study found.


Lead author Professor Jan Blacher described the findings as “shocking”.


“These little children were asked to leave school because they demonstrated behaviours directly related to their autism. So, they were being expelled from preschool for the very problems that they needed preschool for.”


Autism characteristics, including difficulty with social communication and some repetitive behaviors, can be misinterpreted as forms of misbehaviour, making autistic children more vulnerable to expulsions, the researchers found. Additionally, teachers may miss children’s non-verbal attempts to communicate their needs, which heightens children’s anxiety and can result in ‘temper tantrums’ (sic.) at such a young age.


“These are very young children who have no idea why they are being asked to leave school. And it leaves the kids in kind of a quandary,” Professor Blacher said.


Along with co-author Professor Abbey Eisenhower, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston in the Department of Psychology, Professor Blacher based the findings pertaining to expulsion on reports by parents of 203 autistic children. 


The autistic children were “overwhelmingly” expelled for behavioural issues.


“Teachers saw them as a problem but didn’t understand that the problem was indicative of a disability, or something more systemic, that actually needed to be dealt with,” Professor Blacher said. 


“Many of the expelled children were not identified as having a special need. That suggests to us that it never occurred to the teachers to refer them for assessment. So, part of it is a lack of teacher awareness of the prevalence of autism, and how it manifests at a very young age. Had they understood autism, they might have been inspired to deal with it, and say, ‘Maybe I should have this child assessed.’” 


Expulsion rates were found to be higher from  privately owned daycare centers, suggesting a greater need for policies and practices supporting inclusion in private settings.


The findings on ECEC expulsions stemmed from a larger project, called Smooth Sailing, funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Institute of Education Science to develop methods to improve the education of preschool and early grade autistic children. 


Progressing on the research, the pair of researchers have since conducted a pilot study (a randomised controlled trial) of a new autism-affirming intervention to help teachers better understand and help children with autism in general education classes. This work will be published in a forthcoming paper.


Their paper, “Preschool and Child-Care Expulsion: Is it Elevated for Autistic Children?,” was published in the journal Exceptional Children

Download The Sector's new App!

ECEC news, jobs, events and more anytime, anywhere.

Download App on Apple App Store Button Download App on Google Play Store Button