Picking the Best Preschool Autism Program

Autism preschool programs that integrate with other kids may be helpful for some kids

December 10, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Chris Galloway, M.D.

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(dailyRx News) Preschool for kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be separate or integrated with other kids. But how do you choose which is best for your child?

A recent study looked at programs for preschool kids with ASD. They looked at ones made up of only kids with ASD, kids with ASD and other disabilities, or kids with ASD and typically developing kids.  They found that some kids showed bigger gains in mental skills when they learned alongside typically developing peers.

"Ask a doctor about preschool ASD programs in your area."

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Allison Nahmias, MA and PhD candidate, enrolled 98 kids with ASD. The kids were tested for mental ability, development and language skills when they were about age 3. The kids were about to enter an early intervention preschool program for ASD.

Kids started in an inclusive classroom, a mixed program, or an ASD only program.  Inclusive programs had kids with ASD alongside typically developing peers. Mixed programs had kids with ASD and kids with other developmental disabilities. Of the kids in the study, 37 were in an ASD only program, 25 were in a mixed program and 36 were in an inclusive program.

The researchers then tested their cognitive ability and function again when they were entering elementary school and at about 5 years of age.

Kids in inclusive programs had higher scores on the mental skills tests than kids in the mixed classes. They also scored 11.3 points higher, on average, of the mental ability tests than the kids in the mixed programs.

Additionally, these kids scored slightly better than those in the ASD only programs, with an average of 6.5 points better on the tests. However, this difference was not big enough to be very meaningful.

The authors suggested that inclusive and ASD only classes may have more ASD-directed aspects. Mixed classes have a greater variety of disabilities included, so ASD specific tools may be more limited.

Further, kids with less social and adaptive skills before intervention showed the biggest gains in mental skills scores when they were in inclusive programs but only if they already had basic language skills.

The authors concluded that inclusive programs may be best for kids who have some language skills but have social impairments. ASD only programs are likely best for kids with language impairments.

The results also indicate that mixed classes may be the least effective programs for preschoolers with ASD, at least in terms of cognitive ability. This study did not look at overall function, specifically. They looked only at the mental and cognitive skills that were improved by the programs.

Mixed programs may have other benefits that were not reviewed in this study. This study was published November 27 in Autism. The authors report no conflicts of interest. The study was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and US Department of Education.

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Review Date: 
December 6, 2012
Last Updated:
February 19, 2013