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ECE Resources

How to support autistic children in ECE

In our webinar, Dr Hannah Waddington (Victoria University of Wellington) and Jessica Tupou provided an understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and the implications it has for children’s learning in ECE. They offered several strategies and practical techniques for supporting children with autism in an early childhood setting.

The key insights are:

Many autistic children are attending Early Childhood Education (ECE) services. A recent survey in New Zealand found 1 in 45 children under the age of 14 as having an autism diagnosis. It is more common in boys than girls, although it is possibly underdiagnosed in girls. ASD is a neuro-developmental disorder. The term ‘neuro’ refers to differences in wiring of the brain, while the disorder is developmental because it impacts children’s development and is lifelong. Many autistic children will have other diagnoses, difficulties, and behavioural concerns as well.

Autistic children have challenges with social communication and interactions, and with restricted and repetitive behaviours, interests, and routines. The way these challenges present will vary from child to child. For example, challenges with social communication and interaction for one child may entail difficulties with initiating and maintaining conversations, while another child may show a total lack of interest in interaction. Challenges with non-verbal communication can vary from having trouble integrating gestures with words or eye contact to having little non-verbal communication at all. Many autistic children also have special strengths, often related to their particular interests.

Autistic children’s challenges and difficulties can impact on their learning in ECE. Learning in ECE happens primarily through social interaction, and through paying attention to others and what they are doing. Autistic children may miss out on learning opportunities because they may not attend to the voices and faces of people around them, and because they may have difficulty building relationships with teachers and peers. In play, they may show a fixation on a particular toy to the exclusion of everything else, or they may have difficulty transitioning between activities, which causes them to miss out on a broader range of learning opportunities. Autistic children can also have difficulties managing their arousal, and can be either under-aroused (seemingly ‘zoned out’) or over-aroused (over-energised and wound up), which impacts on social interactions and teaching. These difficulties, if left unaddressed, can cause autistic children to fall behind in their learning.

Early indicators of autism are present under the age of 1. These include atypical eye contact, few pointing gestures (particularly pointing to show interest or share an observation with another), and not responding to their name when called. Free screening tools such as ASDetect are available and may be useful to teachers and parents. It is important to remember that professionals are required for diagnosis, and that parents must agree to any referral to a professional. Teachers can gather evidence of children’s challenges, raise their concerns with parents, and find out what concerns parents have. Referrals can be made through a GP or by teachers themselves. A diagnosis can be helpful because it can lead to tailored support, but it is not essential, and is not needed to access many support services. The Ministry of Education provides access to supports such as Education Support Workers (ESW), speech and language therapists, and Early Intervention Services. There is substantial research showing that early diagnosis, intervention, and support for children with autism leads to improved outcomes including mainstream education attendance and employment.

It is important to support autistic children to develop relationships with a range of people in an ECE centre. It is not uncommon for one teacher to develop a special relationship with an autistic child, but ideally the aim is for children to have lots of good relationships with other teachers in order to maximise learning opportunities and ensure that the child can cope if their favourite teacher is not present. The preferred teacher can share strategies for building a relationship with the child with the rest of the teaching team. Spending time one-on-one with a child is highly valuable for relationship-building, and even a small amount of time (such as ten minutes a day) will benefit both the teacher and the child. One idea that teaching teams might like to try is using a child’s ESW to free up teachers to spend one-on-one time with the child. Children may also be supported to practise social interactions with peers. Peers who are mature and have well-developed empathy and social skills will be well suited for these practice interactions. Teachers might also help autistic children to notice when a peer does something fun or interesting, and invite them to copy (or help other children notice when the autistic child does something fun or interesting and encourage them to copy). In general, it is best to bring peers into the autistic child’s play, rather than trying to point autistic children towards playing peers’ games.

ECE settings can be over-stimulating for autistic children. Teachers can take steps to ensure that children do not become over-aroused, such as turning off background music when noise levels rise or moving the child into a quieter space. Rhymes, songs, and social games can also be used to modulate arousal levels. Teaching teams can also consider their environments. Brightly coloured images and information can be overwhelming and distracting for all children, while clearly defined spaces with a clear purpose help children understand activities and expectations, and clear, easy-to-navigate passages for transitioning between spaces are also helpful.   

Autistic children can be supported in their special interests. In line with good early childhood pedagogy, it is best to follow the child’s interests, especially when starting to build a relationship. If the child is very rigid and possessive of a particular toy or activity, and will not let you interact with it, then there are different strategies to try. Putting the toy away and encouraging the child to find other objects of interest may distress the child and lead to challenging behaviours, so it is better to very slowly and gently build up an interaction with the child around that play. For example, start by seeing if the child can tolerate having a teacher sit nearby while they play with the favourite item. Next, the teacher might be able to narrate their play, and then be helpful by passing toys to the child and so on. By slowly building up a presence in the child’s play, teachers may eventually be able to participate more fully.

Parents of autistic children require special support. Teachers are likely to be working with parents at a particularly sensitive time, during or just after diagnosis, and while they are accessing a range of services and professionals for the first time. When parents and teachers work together on shared goals for autistic children, and when there is consistency between home and the early childhood centre, children make much more progress. Regular individualised planning meetings with parents can be useful, and enable parents to pass on goals and advice from professionals working with the child and family. Some parents may have difficulty accepting the child’s differences and may refuse a referral. This requires teachers to be very patient and understanding, but to continue gently asserting what they notice about children and what concerns they have. If parents are not convinced, teachers may be able to persuade parents to look at a diagnostic tool such as ASDetect.

By Dr Vicki Hargraves

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