Two young boys eating snacks.
20 Jan

Early education on the autism spectrum

Early childhood education has endless benefits for young children and their families. Not only does it foster a child’s learning, development, relationships and wellbeing, it enables parents and carers to return to work and engage in other important activities. This is particularly true for children with autism and their parents and carers, as well as children with other disabilities and additional needs.

An autistic child’s early years are particularly crucial when it comes to developing skills, strategies and behaviours that serve them throughout their lives. Early childhood education can supplement a child’s early intervention and provide them with the vital opportunity of interacting with other children from different backgrounds.  

In this article, we’ll discuss strategies for finding the early education service that can best support your child and your family’s needs. We’ll also share where you can access additional support during this process to ensure your child’s rights and needs are prioritised:  

  • Know your rights
  • Know what to look for
  • Know what to ask
  • Funding and additional resources
  • Your next steps

Know your rights

The Australian Disability Discrimination Act 1992 protects the rights of people with disability, including babies, infants and young children. This act states that children have the right to access early education services, including children with autism, disability or additional needs. It is also states that it is unlawful for early education providers to refuse a child’s enrolment or limit their attendance and participation in childcare services due to their disability.

Early childhood education providers are also required by law to make reasonable adjustments to their procedures and environments in order to meet the needs of a child with disability. These adjustments could include providing specialised resources equipment to support a child’s learning. It could also include training for educators and other staff so they have a strong understanding of autism and how to effectively educate your child.

Anti-discrimination laws and equal opportunity laws protect the rights of children with disability in early education settings in all Australian states and territories. The National Quality Framework for Early Childhood Education and Care also sets standards for supporting the needs of children with disability within the curriculum. These standards apply to both centre-based and family day care services.

In the instance where you believe your child is being discriminated against during their early education or the enrolment process, you should bring your concerns to the service directly. This can bean emotional process, so having someone to support you, such as a family member, friend or volunteer can help.

If there is no response or an insufficient response, you can make a formal complaint to your state or territory’s human rights commission or the Australian Human Rights Commission. You can also discover what disability advocate services can help you by clicking here.

Know what to look for

Choosing an early education setting that is right for your child can feel overwhelming, particularly if you don’t know what to look for. As well as considering the quality and logistics of a centre, you’ll also need to consider whether their environment, methods and culture will foster your child’s learning and development in a safe and supportive way.

There are several types of early childhood education, each with different features, benefits and drawbacks:

Centre-based care

This encompasses centres offering long day care, occasional day care, preschool and kindergarten. Qualified early childhood educators provide structured learning and development programs within a daily routine that can be modified to suit your child’s needs. Children also have regular opportunities to play and socialise with each other.

It is usually the most reliable form of care once your child’s place is secured, as there are multiple educators to attend to your child. Waiting lists can be extensive, particularly for occasional care, so it’s important to register your child early to avoid missing out.

Family-based care

This involves your child being looked after by an approved educator in their home. This educator will offer a learning and development program for your child to follow, alongside opportunities for them to play and socialise with other children.

These environments are often quieter and more flexible than centre-based care, which can suit some children and their families better. However, they may be less reliable, as if your educator is not available, there is usually no additional educator to replace them.

Home-based care/in-home care

This is where a family member, friend, nanny or babysitter cares for your child in your own home. This doesn't involve following a learning or development program and is a more informal approach which can be used when formal childcare isn't available or doesn't meet the needs of your child or family. Many families use home-based care on a regular or occasional basis, often in conjunction with home or centre-based care (e.g.,grandparents looking after children).

What makes a good early childhood service?

Every family has different needs, wishes and expectations for their child’s early education, meaning that a ‘good’ early childhood service will look different to everyone! Identifying your values and boundaries is an important first step in finding a service that works for you. Here are some questions you can consider during this initial process:

  • What is your budget for early childhood education?
  • What is the quality rating of the service?
  • When will you require the service (e.g. the same days each week, one day a week only, on an occasional basis)?
  • Is it important for your child to experience different styles of learning?
  • Is it important for your child to receive a similar or different style of education to what they receive at home?
  • Is it important for your child to socialise and interact with other children, particularly children of different backgrounds?
  • Is it important for your child to receive an education that aligns with your family’s values around food, sleep? Are cultural and religious factors important to you?

Know what to ask

In addition to the general questions parents/carers have when approaching an early childhood service (e.g., their quality rating), you’ll probably have questions around how your autistic child’s needs will be met. A good early childhood centre will be happy to answer these questions, or to find the answer if they don’t know it initially.

The way educators and staff respond to your questions and how helpful their answers are is a good indicator of the quality of a centre and whether they’re right for you. It also allows you to begin forming both a positive and productive relationship with your child’s educators, where all parties can share information and feedback openly with the common goal of giving your child the best learning experience possible.  

Here are some questions to consider asking when meeting and communicating with an early education centre:

  • Does your centre have experience educating children with autism?
  • Does your centre have policies and procedures to ensure autistic children are supported? Are educators formally trained in how to support children with autism?
  • Does your centre have resources and equipment designed to support autistic children (e.g., visual schedules depicting daily routines, cards displaying different activities and emotions)? If not, are they willing and able to implement these resources to support learning, communication and behaviour?
  • Do educators incorporate a child’s interests into their learning, particularly if they are on the autism spectrum?
  • Does the centre have experience devising learning goals for autistic children that reflect both their strengths and support needs?

If you’re interested in centre-based or family-based care, going on a tour of the centre and meeting the educator/s is important for assisting your decision. It’s particularly vital when your child has autism, a disability and/or additional needs, as you can discuss your child’s strengths, challenges and support needs with educator/s directly.

Funding and additional resources

There are a range of external supports that can assist children and their families in making the most of their early education. For children with autism, disability or additional needs, this support is typically provided through the Inclusion Support Program (ISP). This program provides tailored assistance in three key areas to address barriers to inclusion a child may experience in early childhood education and care:

  • Professional support (working with educators to address barriers)
  • Specialist equipment (providing equipment such as portable ramps)
  • Funding(situations where professional support and specialist equipment do not address inclusion barriers)

Funding is referred to as the Inclusion Development Fund (IDF) and has four streams:

IDF Subsidy for an Additional Educator

Funding allowing an extra educator to join a child's room, increasing the child to educator ratio. This isn’t one-to-one support, but ensures there are enough educators available to ensure all children are participating in their learning, particularly those with high support needs.

IDF Subsidy for Immediate/Time Limited Support

Funding for an additional educator to assist the service for a short time. This ensures immediate barriers to inclusion for children with disability are addressed promptly.

IDF Subsidy for Family/Day Care Top Up

Provides a fee top-up when the enrolment of a child with disability results in a centre being unable to enrol the maximum possible number of children under National Law.

IDF Innovative Solutions Support

Funding for alternative solutions to inclusion barriers, for example, involving external experts who can offer evidence-based strategies and insights.

In order for a centre to be eligible for the Inclusion Support Program, they must be endorsed by an Inclusion Agency and meet other eligibility requirements. Ensuring your child’s care provider is qualified is crucial, as it is the provider that applies for this program, not the family.

A significant delay in the processing of an Inclusion Support Program funding application could constitute as discrimination. If you have concerns about the length of time an application is taking, reach out to your provider or the organisations mentioned above.

Other funding options

The Child Care Subsidy is available to families using an approved child care service, as well as meeting other residency, immunisation and age requirements. You can learn more about this subsidy and whether you are eligible here.

Your next steps

With an understanding of what your child needs and expects from an early education service, you’ll be much more confident when searching for the right provider. Remember to be open, honest and kind to yourself throughout the process of finding a service that respects your wishes for your child’s education and what they need to succeed.  

For further information about autism in the early years, you can read the following articles:

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