This is Part 1 in our Preschool Series
For parents of young autistic children, it can be very challenging to know how to best schedule your child’s time across all of the many activities that children typically do. In addition to family time, library trips, drop in play gyms, and preschool, it is recommended that young autistic children participate in early, intensive behavioral intervention. It can be difficult to plan your child’s schedule for preschool, early autism intervention, or both, especially when additional constraints for childcare or daycare are present. Perhaps your child was attending preschool prior to receiving, or while on the waitlist for, their diagnosis. Or, perhaps you are trying to determine if preschool is the right fit for your child at the moment.
If this is the case, read on! We are here to share some of the considerations and advice that we give families, informed by our experience supporting many children through this transition. In this post, we will take a look at the difference between preschool and early autism intervention and give you some considerations to think about to help you make the best choice for your child.
What is Preschool?
Preschool is an early learning program for children between the ages of 3 and 4, or up until kindergarten entry. Preschool can help prepare children for the structure of kindergarten and provides opportunities for socialization and group based learning. There is no specific preschool based curriculum in British Columbia, however, the government of BC has put together an Early Learning Framework that many early childhood educators use as a guide. While each preschool may have a different focus (i.e., more learning based vs play based, or adult lead vs child-lead, etc.), the overall goal is to prepare children for entry to kindergarten. Preschools are group-based and children are not provided with individualized goals, but rather encouraged to follow along with the classroom plan. Preschool teachers are licensed early childhood educators, and have learned about child development and education. The number of children in a preschool program will vary depending on the licensing requirements, but a typical adult to staff ratio is 1:6 – 1:10.
What is Autism Early Intervention?
Early, intensive behavioral intervention services for autistic children include evidenced-based therapies, such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), that are provided in an intensive format (e.g., 20 hours per week). Intervention services are provided by a team of professionals (e.g., Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Speech-Language Pathologist) and paraprofessionals (e.g., Behaviour Interventionists). Individuals overseeing the team in British Columbia would be on the Registry of Autism Service Providers (RASP), meaning they have a masters degree, specialized coursework in behaviour analysis and autism, and extensive supervised experience in these therapies prior to working independently. At UP, all of our behaviour analysts are dually certified as Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBA) and ESDM Certified Therapists, meaning they have met competencies in both behaviour analytic therapy and in therapy specialized for young autistic children.
In our program, like many intervention programs, the professional overseeing your child’s team would create an individualized program plan for your child’s specific needs with your input, then train and monitor its implementation in an intensive format for your child. This plan includes specific goals that target skills that your child is learning across developmental domains (e.g., communication, social, adaptive, fine motor, gross motor, etc.) in a fun, relationship-based, playful format. Children are supported in either a 1:1 environment (individual program) or in a group program with a 2:3 or 2:4 ratio of adults to children. Decisions regarding child support levels are made based on the child’s current skill level and learning needs. We select anywhere from 8-20 objectives per quarter based on the child’s attendance level, and we monitor child progress on a weekly basis. The goal is to have all of the objectives in a child’s goal plan completed in a 3 month period, at which point we would set a new round of objectives. This intensive teaching format allows us to help children learn key skills necessary for success across domains, and close the developmental gap that can occur compared to typically developing peers.
How do I know if my child is ready for preschool?
We wish we could hand you a checklist that you could go through to determine if your child is or is not ready for preschool, but there is not a lot of research in this area when it comes to children with neuro-developmental conditions or developmental delays such as autism. There are, however, some strong indicators that a child may thrive in a preschool environment with minimal support based on our experience.
1: Can your child communicate their basic needs?
If your child can seek out an adult and communicate basic needs, such as help, stop, more, eat, drink and play, either verbally or through an augmentative/alternative communication system, they are more likely to be comfortable in a group environment. If children are uncomfortable seeking out new individuals in a group environment to communicate with or if they have difficulty communicating in general, they may not be ready for a group placement without specialized support. If your child is not able to communicate these needs in a group setting, it may result in your child ending up in situations where something is unpleasant, bothersome to them, or where their needs are not being met and they cannot communicate them. This could lead to frustration and/or problem behaviour and may further limit your child’s ability to participate in these settings in the future.
2: Can your child engage with a variety of materials in a way that is not disruptive to others?
Preschools often have free play periods, and if autistic children have difficulty engaging with the types of materials available in a preschool, this can lead to challenges for the child. For instance, if a child has not yet learned enjoyable ways of engaging with a variety of activities, they may choose only to engage in stereotypy and repetitive behaviour. This can lead to these behaviours being highly practiced and a “go-to” activity for your child. There isn’t anything wrong with a child engaging in stereotypy, or using stims to self-regulate, but when autistic children don’t have access to meaningful play activities that they enjoy, stereotypic behaviour can become compulsory and pervasive. This can limit a child’s opportunities to pay attention to other people, which can further limit learning opportunities for the child. If children play with toys in a way that is disruptive to others, this could also lead to conflict in the classroom which may lead to difficulties for the child if there isn’t a skilled adult there to help support them.
3: Can your child participate in a coordinated activity with an adult or peer for brief periods of time?
If your child can sit with a peer and build a block tower alongside their peers’ block tower, or play with play-doh with an adult for a few minutes, they are much more likely to be successful in a social environment. However, if your child actively avoids peers, or has difficulty sharing materials, we would recommend that they attend these programs with dedicated support. This way, evidence based strategies can be used to help your child be successful during these instances if that is an appropriate goal for them. Peers can be unpredictable for children on the autism spectrum and your child should be able, with minimal support from an adult, to communicate, move away from, or problem solve in a safe manner if one of their peers is doing something that they don’t like if they are going to be in a group environment with minimal support.
4: Can your child follow a routine?
If your child can follow simple instructions from adults and engage with a group as they move from one activity to another with occasional breaks, then preschool may be a good fit for them. However, some children have strong opinions about what they would like to do and when they would like to do it, and these children have difficulty getting on board with the group plan in a classroom setting. This can lead to conflict and problem behaviour, and/or the child being left by themselves to do their own thing.
What is the best option for my child?
While these are a few considerations, there are other issues that may affect a child’s readiness for group-based or new learning environments. Ultimately, each family needs to make a decision for themselves on whether their child is ready to attend preschool, and/or when the best time is for their child to attend preschool. Your child’s team can provide guidance and support and answer any questions you may have as you make this decision.
In summary, many children without additional support needs benefit greatly from a preschool placement. If a child has additional support needs and/or social communication difficulties but can benefit from learning in a social environment, simply putting them in a classroom with other children is usually not enough to help them learn new skills. If your child has difficulty with any of the above skills, we often recommend focusing on intensive, early intervention instead of preschool before placing children in a social environment with reduced staffing support. Alternatively, sending a child to preschool with the proper support (e.g. 1:1 staff or small group support that is overseen by a qualified professional), can greatly increase your child’s success in this environment.
If you are not sure about preschool or there are other issues at play that limit your child’s ability to be in a group environment, check out our Group-Based ESDM program. It is a specialized program meant to build the skills necessary for group-based learning in kindergarten, while continuing to teach intensive, individualized goals in a small group environment. This program is a great alternative or complement to preschool for kids on the spectrum.
Stay tuned because in our next post, we will talk about how Early Intervention services can support your child’s readiness skills for preschool.