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Finding the Right Autism Preschool for Your Child

Over the last 20 years, the CDC’s estimated rate of autism among 8-year old children has grown from 1 in 150 to 1 in 36. Improved diagnostic methods and a better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder has largely contributed to this increase in rates, which is why it’s important to screen children for autism early in life.

A physician can diagnose autism in children as young as 18 months old. The sooner a child can be diagnosed and start receiving Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, the greater positive impact that the treatment will have on their ability to master new skills and meet behavioral milestones. 

As your child approaches school age, you may consider enrolling them in preschool. Choosing the right type of care for your child can be a daunting task with many variables to consider. 

What Preschool Options Exist for Children with Autism?

If your child has autism, you’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether preschool is a viable option for them. You may have even searched for a specialized autism preschool or daycare in your area. 

In general, there are four types of preschool options available for children with autism:

  1. Traditional preschool
  2. Inclusive preschool
  3. Specialized preschool
  4. ABA programs that include a preschool curriculum

Traditional Preschool for Children with ASD

Traditional preschools include Pre-K programs in public schools as well as private schools for typically developing children. Prepared accommodations and special education teachers may not be available for your child, and teachers are responsible for multiple children at a time.

Traditional preschool curriculums focus on building academic skills and offer social interaction in a group setting. They are not designed to address a child’s specific challenges with social, communication, and daily living skills, nor are they equipped to address challenging behaviors.

Some children with autism do well in this environment, while others will need more structure and attentive care – this will all depend on your child’s individual needs.

Inclusive Preschool Programs

Inclusive preschools are the middle ground between traditional and specialized preschools. These programs are designed to include both typically developing children as well as children with disabilities in a classroom setting. 

The level of accommodations for children with autism can vary – in some cases a special education teacher will co-teach with a general education teacher, and in other cases a special education teacher will join the class for part of the day. Although these programs have more resources to accommodate children with autism compared to a traditional preschool, ABA services are not usually included.

Specialized Autism Preschools

Specialized preschools are designed specifically for children with autism. While they do exist, these programs are not nearly as common as other options. 

In a specialized preschool program, staff are trained and experienced in working with children with autism. They are also more likely to have a low student-to-teacher ratio compared to traditional preschools. ABA principles may or may not be incorporated into the program.

ABA Centers with Preschool Services

ABA centers combine Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy with a preschool curriculum. These programs are typically found in specialized centers and designed to provide comprehensive ABA therapy to children with autism in a naturalistic setting. 

What sets ABA centers apart from other preschool options is that children receive 1:1 staffing and have the benefit of individualized programming as well as group programming.

What to Consider When Choosing a Preschool Program

Your Child’s Needs

Developmental Needs

Children on the autism spectrum can have a wide range of strengths and challenges that affect what type of care they need. Children with moderate to severe autism symptoms may require a specialized program with more hours of ABA therapy, while a child with milder symptoms may succeed in an inclusive preschool program. 

Keep in mind that preschool is meant to prepare your child for Kindergarten and grade school.  Supporting your child’s developmental growth will help them acquire skills that prepare them to be successful when they enter the school system.

Working with an ABA provider can help you make this decision. When enrolling in ABA services, a BCBA should assess your child’s current level of functioning and identify their specific needs in terms of communication, social skills, and behavior. This information can then be used to guide you when selecting a preschool program that best meets their needs.

Personal Preferences

Your child’s interests and learning style are important factors that impact success in a preschool program. An environment that suits their preferences will help keep them engaged and motivated, which can lead to better outcomes.

It’s also important to understand that your child may qualify to participate in more than one preschool program. However, they may merely “survive” in one program type but thrive in another. At the end of the day, your goal should be to find the option that helps your child thrive!

Program Qualifications, Curriculum, and Environment

Qualifications: It’s important to confirm whether the staff at a preschool are qualified and experienced in working with children with autism. For specialized preschools and ABA programs, their knowledge should include a strong understanding of ABA principles and its implementation. 

Curriculum: The curriculum should be appropriate for children with autism and individualized to meet your child’s specific needs. This can be achieved by using ABA-based teaching methods, such as natural environment teaching, Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), discrete trial training, and visual supports.

Environment: The school environment should be designed to meet the needs of children with autism. This includes providing a safe and predictable setting, using visual supports, and providing opportunities for social interaction.

Communication Between the Preschool and Parents

Frequent communication between yourself and the program’s teachers and therapists is necessary to ensure that your child is thriving at preschool. This includes regular communication about the child’s progress, sharing information about the child’s needs and preferences, and discussing strategies for addressing any challenges that may arise.

Collaboration between parents, teachers, and ABA therapists can lead to a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to addressing the child’s needs. This can include providing the child with ABA therapy in the preschool setting and working together to develop an individualized curriculum and behavior plan for the child.

Parent Considerations: Time, Cost, Location

It’s not uncommon for families to struggle with the financial cost, time commitment, and distance of some preschool programs. As a parent, it’s important for a preschool to meet your needs, too. 

Time Commitment: Parents with busy schedules may need access to full-day, half-day, or after-school care. It’s also important to remember that if you are considering ABA therapy for your child, they may not be able to receive therapy in certain preschool settings. This requires extra time out of the day for sessions with their RBT. On the other hand, programs that have BCBAs and ABA-trained staff on location will allow your child to get the necessary hours of ABA therapy throughout the day.

Financial Cost: The cost of preschool can be a considerable expense. ABA programs differ from other options in this regard because it may be covered by your insurance and include child care services in addition to therapy.

Location: Your ability to access inclusive or specialized preschool programs can vary depending on where you live. Some areas will have more options than others.

Questions to Ask Your Autism Preschool Program

Evaluating the quality of a specialized preschool can be difficult if you don’t know what to look for or ask. The program you choose should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What are the staff’s qualifications and experience in working with children with autism?
  • What is the school’s curriculum, teaching methods, and how does it cater to children with autism?
  • How will the program evaluate and track my child’s progress?
  • What is the school’s behavior management plan, how is it implemented, and what is the role of ABA therapy in it?
  • What are the communication and collaboration procedures between the school, the parents, and the ABA therapist?
  • How does the program promote socialization and independent functioning?
  • What are the school’s facilities and environment like, and how are they tailored to children with autism?
  • Are there opportunities for parent involvement and education?

As an ABA therapy provider, part of our job is to help parents evaluate the answers to these questions. This includes helping you know what to look for in terms of qualifications and experience, curriculum, and environment – as well as how they align with your child’s needs, preferences, and ABA therapy goals.

We’re Here for You As You Navigate Preschool for Your Child

There is a range of traditional and nontraditional options available to you when choosing an appropriate preschool program for your child. Children with autism can vary widely in terms of struggles and strengths, and the preschool you choose should be prepared to meet your child’s individual needs.

If you choose a preschool that does not include ABA services, enrolling your child in ABA therapy separately can help them succeed in these environments. Meanwhile, an ABA center may be able to provide ABA therapy and preschool services at the same time. 

When selecting a preschool for your child, remember that resources such as Ascend Autism can help you evaluate the options. Supporting parents is a large part of our mission, and we are here to support you in this process.

You can always call us at 877.323.8668 or visit us at one of our early childhood centers.

New York
22 Saw Mill River Rd., 
Hawthorne, NY 10532

2603 Westwood Dr, 
Nashville, TN 37204


Helping Children And Families Succeed!

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