Why preschoolers living with autism benefit from early education

One of every 36 children in the U.S. has been diagnosed with Autism— about four of every 100 boys and one of every 100 girls. Those numbers from 2020 are notably higher than in 2014 when one of every 68 children were affected. Early childhood education presents a golden opportunity to set up these children for academic success. Pre-K programs are especially important in ensuring children living with autism are ready for kindergarten both academically and socially. In addition, preschool programs can help identify children with autism who may have not been diagnosed and connect them and their families to resources they may have been unaware of.

Early Education Matters spoke about this important topic with Heather Eckner, director of statewide education for the Autism Alliance of Michigan (AAOM) and parent of two autistic children.

Heather EcknerQ. How does early childhood education, and pre-K education help prepare children living with autism for academic success?

A. Research, studies, and data over time have made it quite clear that the first years of a child's life really set a foundation for healthy development holistically. Whenever we think about the context for where that healthy development can best take place, the early childhood education setting is really critical. We know that kids who participate in preschool programs are more likely to continue on within the public school education system and have stronger outcomes. When we think specifically about children with autism, all of those important benefits and foundational skills are there. There's the additional element of children with some additional needs coming into these settings and having that time and space to develop those foundational skills and to acclimate to the learning classroom environments.
If we think about the characteristics that are common for autistic children, there are notable challenges with peer interaction and communication. What happens in a home setting, adults are pretty adaptive intrinsically — we're accommodating. We know our kids best. Sometimes some of the child's challenges don't become evident until they are in another setting with same-age peers in a different environment, like the preschool setting. It’s really important for kids with disabilities like autism to have that exposure and those experiences. Another common characteristic of autistic kids is they are often picky eaters. Sometimes for autistic kids, it's seeing other peers eating different foods that will spark them to be willing to try it.
That early childhood education environment is a foundation for helping kids with autism prepare for their educational journey and a career that's to come. In Michigan, an individual with a disability can go [to school] all the way up through age 26.

Q. If parents have a choice of programs, what should they look for?

A. I would strongly encourage families to consider inclusive preschool environments. Unfortunately, Michigan, compared to other states, is not doing as well in that area as we could and should be. There are decades of evidence that inclusive education environments benefit not only kids with disabilities like autism, but their nondisabled or neurotypical peers benefit … preparing kids to be a citizen in the world.

Parents should also look for settings that use evidence-based programming, curriculums, supports, and interventions.

Q. If parents don’t have a choice in preschool or pre-K programs, how can they help set their kids up for success?

A. Ask questions of the preschool program staff — how do you support kids with additional needs if there already is a medical evaluation in place? A medical evaluation will have recommendations for accommodation and supports listed. Sharing that information with preschool staff is really important. And then that communication, having those conversations to say, “How can we best support this child in the environment with everything else that might be going on there?” And it really is a continuous communication loop.

The good news, in Head Start or GSRP (Great Start Readiness Program), staff are generally aware of these needs, So, it's really about families communicating with the staff so parents understand what the environment will look like for their child, what supports are available, and how supports will be provided.

Q. Should preschoolers with autism have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place?

A. In Michigan, everything under education for kids with disabilities or suspected of having a disability is governed by federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, starting at birth and all the way up to age 26. The education system is obligated to identify kids who are suspected of having a disability, evaluate them to see if they're eligible for services and supports, and put those individualized plans in place from the earliest, earliest stages.

If families have any questions or concerns connected to disability, we always encourage them to contact their local school district where they live because that's the body that is responsible for IDEA in their area. They can conduct an evaluation regardless of where the child may go to preschool — and that's an entry point.

Q. What role do early educators have in identifying children who may be living with undiagnosed autism?

A. For some families, preschool is where they find out their child may need an evaluation to see if they have additional challenges or a diagnosable disability. This is where early childhood educators play a critical role. Teacher preparation programs prepare teachers to understand and recognize the signs of potential disabilities like autism. When a child does come into their classroom, they can catch some suspected displays, whether it's behavior or communication, and start that process as early as possible for evaluation. It really is important that teachers are adequately trained and supported because of that critical role.

Within Michigan, Governor Whitmer has really made a commitment to roll out universal pre-K for four-year-olds. When that happens, any preschool site that's part of that universal four-year-old pre-K programming will fall under those federal obligations of IDEA …  They will be obligated to find kids suspected of disability, move forward with those evaluations, and, if they get an IEP, provide those appropriate supports.

Q. Where can parents of preschoolers with autism find more information about navigating the education system?

A. We encourage parents to reach out to the AAoM MI Navigator Program, which is statewide. Our navigators are really great at answering any questions parents might have and then guiding them to appropriate resources. We know where the providers are. We know where you can get a shorter timeframe to get an evaluation. We're able to answer those questions whenever it comes to supporting kids and families with autism.

Another statewide resource in education for kids with disabilities, the Michigan Alliance for Families is our statewide parent training information center. They have regional parent mentors, a person who is aware of things happening in the local communities. AAoM has a very close collaborative relationship with the Michigan Alliance for Families.
Estelle Slootmaker is project editor for Early Education Matters, Estelle.Slootmaker@gmail.com.

Photos by Isabel Media Studios.

Heather Eckner photo courtesy AAoM.

Early Education Matters is a series about how Michigan parents, childcare providers, and early childhood educators are working together to implement Pre-K for All. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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