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Child in Mind

Rising numbers of kids expelled from preschool and diagnosed with autism: are they linked?

Two alarming news items compete for attention. The first, a New York Times editorial entitled Giving Up on Four-Year-Olds describes a recent report showing expulsion from preschool as a form of discipline occurring in increasing numbers. A second speaks to the new CDC statistics indicating that 1 in 68 children have autism, a change from 1 in 88 just 5 years ago.

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Perhaps both represent a lack of value of space and time for listening, in particular for listening to children and parents. Elizabeth Young-Breuhl might refer to both phenomena as prejudice against children

Each child who is expelled from preschool has a story. Similarly, every child diagnosed with autism has a story. It takes time, and a safe non-judgmental environment to bring these stories to light and so make sense of a child's behavior.

There may be witnessed domestic violence. When  a child lives in fear, he may respond to the "threat" of a child standing too close to him in line by pushing him. A reprimanding voice may lead to escalation of stress and even the development of a "fight-flight reaction." Being sent to the principal's office leads to further disorganization. 

Sensory processing challenges are often prominent. A withdrawal from social interaction makes sense from the perspective of a child who is flooded and overwhelmed by a busy classroom. Crawling under a desk may not be something "wrong" but rather an adaptive response.

Increasingly structured school environments, with little room for variation and high student:teacher ratios may exacerbate both of these problems. 

However, once we have the opportunity to hear the story, what to do to help the child becomes clear. One boy whose behavior had escalated to the point where he was throwing things at the teacher felt calm if he could start the day with a few minutes buried under the plastic balls in the ball pit. Another who would run in circles much of the day discovered music. When she was invited to sing or play an instrument she could sit calmly with the other children. Another family recognized how the level of chaos in the home was particularly problematic given their son's vulnerabilities, and took steps to change that environment.

A recent New York Times article describes a wonderful school program, Head Start Trauma Smart, an example of an innovative program that takes time to listen to the story, make sense of a child's behavior and respond appropriately. In contrast, expelling children for "acting out" may result in a cascade of worsening behavior problems.

The massive rise in autism numbers may reflect a need to name a problem with certainty, rather than taking the time to let the story unfold, to let a child grow in to himself. Perhaps if parents, teachers and clinicians had the opportunity to get a child the help he needs without pressure to name the problem, the numbers would be much lower.

Clearly there are significant differences between these two issues. But an underlying theme emerges. 


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.