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Preschool Programs for Autistic Children: 5 Questions to Consider

Preschool Programs for Autistic Children: 5 Questions to Consider

One of the most difficult early challenges of autism parents is to ensure their child will have an effective preschool program. Parents soon realize preschool programs for autistic children vary greatly: from being highly structured, adult-directed, and therapy-based to those that emphasize self-directed exploratory play and unstructured group interactions.

Programs may also differ in how the team members work together. While some professionals work independently, other programs emphasize the need to work together in an interdisciplinary manner.   

Key components of successful programs have emerged based on years of research and in-depth experience working with parents and professionals. While there may be a host of factors that influence a successful outcome, we have found there are five guiding questions that parents and professionals ought to consider. 

Question 1: Is the preschool program designed for how my child learns?

All children diagnosed with ASD have met a diagnostic criterion:

  • persistent skill deficits in social communication and social interaction 
  • the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities

However, children with ASD show a wide range of characteristics and are sometimes placed solely based on the “level” in which they show the characteristics.

Children with “severe deficits” are more likely to be placed in more intensive, highly structured, and segregated classrooms. On the other hand, those children with less severity are placed in an inclusive program with typically developing peers.

Preschool programs should also consider the environmental factors that influence a child’s learning. Regardless of “level of severity,” determining factors that influence learning is a very important cornerstone to ensure that a preschool program will be a good fit for a child. 

For example, Danny was a 16-month-old toddler with autism. During our initial involvement, we noticed how modifications to the child’s environment seemed to produce behavioral outbursts. 

For instance, when the location of a small bookcase was moved from one corner of a room to another, he became very unsettled. Ultimately, we discovered Danny tends to establish routines quickly, and he gets upset when the routines are changed.

As part of his program, we began to teach Danny to accept changes and be less rigid in his routines. Programs that directly teach children to accept greater variations in their daily routines are truly helping to ensure long-term success.  

Question 2: Are there “make or break” pivotal skills needed in kindergarten?

Professionals preparing young children for kindergarten often target a wide range of skills across academics, social skills, and other areas of identified need. However, research has shown there are pivotal skills that must be emphasized. 

One major area is independence. In the first year of preschool, the need for increased independence becomes apparent. The children should be taught to:

  • be able to sit, attend, and actively participate in a group lesson independently;
  • follow group-based directions or schedule changes independently;
  • socialize with peers during activities without being prompted.
A boy and a girl playing in preschool

Helping a young child develop independence can be accomplished by providing opportunities for simple behaviors or activities to be demonstrated with little to no adult prompting.

For instance, teaching a child to unpack a backpack in the morning may start by having the student take out only the lunch box and place it in the correct location. Teaching the child to do small activities independently can serve as an important building block for future independence.

Question 3: How will this program help my child to socialize and make friends?

When parents seek an early intervention program for their child, they often gather as much information as they can regarding how the program strives to increase communication. While it is vital to target communication and social skills, it is equally important to plan “where the program is implemented.”

It is important to provide preschoolers with autism opportunities to practice social and communication skills with typically developing peers.

Programs must ensure young children with autism are transferring gains to less structured and more natural settings. For many children with autism, having a substantial part of their week with typically-developing peers is essential. 

Because many children with autism struggle to apply skills learned in therapy to inclusive play settings, it’s crucial for programs to create structured socialization opportunities early in the child’s program.

For those children who do get help from an aide, it’s important to train the adult to step back and let the child independently interact with other children. 

Programs can incorporate natural prompts, situational cues, or peer models. For instance, an aide may use a game activity like “Connect-4” or “Go-fish,” with clear turn-taking indications, demonstrating alongside a typical peer. Utilizing these cues enhances the chances of successful social integration.

Question 4: How do you determine if the program is successful?

Evaluation of a program is critical to ensure that there is a good match between your child’s needs and the strategies being used. But what is a “good match”? 

Some organizations use generic criteria, or try to define a good program by simply documenting the number of acquired skills by a child. However, we must ensure that pivotal targets are chosen. 

For example, based on years of research, we know that it is vital to target the social use of language rather than only teaching labels of objects. It is essential for programs to assess whether their program is helping the child to: 

  • learn to communicate with others spontaneously, 
  • ask for help, 
  • express emotions, and 
  • make comments.

Preschool programs must have a focus on these areas with ongoing assessment.    

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Question 5: Will the program help me with my child at home?

Early intervention programs delivered in a center or a preschool setting must strive to impact how the child functions in other less structured settings, including the home or on play dates within the community.

While some schools may not have a formal “home component,” others may include training for parents in strategies and support. Training may include consultation or direct hands-on demonstration on how to apply the strategies within the context of their home.

If schools can’t visit homes, they can adjust their program to encourage broader application. For example, the team can set goals for the child to use newly learned skills in various settings or activities, even in less structured ones.

By expanding the program to different areas within the school, the team also supports the child in applying these skills outside of school.

Choosing the right preschool programs for autistic children

In summary, these five questions address areas of importance based on decades of research in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis and autism. Because each child learns differently, it is vital to determine factors that influence both acquisition and generalization of educational gains.

If the goal is to have your child prepared for kindergarten and beyond, it is essential to ensure that both the focus of the program as well as the procedures are aligned. 

Preschooler with a tutor


Q: What type of preschool is best for autistic children?

A: The best preschool for autistic children is one that offers a supportive and inclusive environment with trained staff who understand and address the unique needs of autistic learners. A program that focuses on individualized attention, sensory-friendly spaces, and effective communication strategies can be particularly beneficial.

Q: How can I help my autistic child in preschool?

A: To support your autistic child in preschool, communicate closely with their teacher to understand their needs and preferences, and work collaboratively to create a structured and supportive environment. Additionally, consider introducing visual schedules and social stories to help your child navigate routines and social interactions more effectively.

Q: Is daycare good for autistic kids?

A: Daycare can be beneficial for autistic kids, providing social interaction, routine, and a structured environment. However, the effectiveness may vary, and it’s essential to consider the individual needs and preferences of the child, along with the daycare’s ability to offer tailored support.

Q: Can an autistic child go to a typical preschool?

A: Yes, many autistic children can attend typical preschools with appropriate support and accommodations. Inclusion in mainstream preschools promotes social interaction and learning opportunities for children with autism.


Burke, J. C., & Burke, J. K. (2017). Pivotal Response Teaching: Practical Guidelines for Teachers and Parents. National Autism Society 49 Annual Convention, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2019). Applied behavior analysis (Third ed.). Hoboken, New Jersey: Pearson.

Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1982). Ecological assessment: Implications for teachers of learning disabled students. Learning Disability Quarterly, 5(2), 117-125. doi:10.2307/1510572

Mohammadzaheri, F., Koegel, L. K., Rezaee, M., & Rafiee, S. M. (2014). A randomized clinical trial comparison between Pivotal Response Treatment (PRT) and Structured Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) intervention for children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44(11), 2769-2777.

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