Why children with autism spectrum disorder are being excluded from schools

Posted 1 month ago by Georgie Waters
School exclusions are actioned to protect class learning, but how do we ensure that the excluded children still get a quality education? [Source: Shutterstock]
School exclusions are actioned to protect class learning, but how do we ensure that the excluded children still get a quality education? [Source: Shutterstock]

What is the real impact of school exclusions on children with disability?

Key points

  • Australian children living with disability make up a total of eight percent of the country’s population, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies
  • While bullying affects children with disability more than their peers without disability, vulnerable groups are often excluded from schools at a disproportionate level if they impact others’ learning or safety
  • Children living with disability such as autism spectrum disorder may find it challenging to express their needs appropriately

Children with disability are up to three times more likely to be bullied than peers without disability. Some factors that can make a child more prone to bullying include being clumsy, having speech difficulties or having trouble with social skills.

While bullying is a problem in schools, vulnerable children — such as those with disability — may face other challenges at school. Researchers of a new study suggest that children in vulnerable groups, such as children with disability, are excluded from schools at a disproportionate level.

Australian children living with disability make up eight percent of the country’s total population. Currently, estimates suggest that 4.4 million Australians are reported to be living with disability, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

Researchers such as Professor Anna Sullivan, from the University of South Australia, said that while school exclusions have been the “mainstay of schools’ behaviour management practices for decades”, there are greater implications for the excluded child’s future. 

“There is a distinct blind spot about how school suspensions and expulsions perpetuate wider social inequalities,” said Professor Sullivan. 

Exclusion from school is a disciplinary measure used when educators believe a child is at risk of endangering the safety or learning of others, but may not target the root cause of the child’s poor behaviour. Professor Sullivan reiterated the importance of moving forward from old policies to make schooling a more inclusive experience for all children. 

“Schools and policymakers must look beyond challenging behaviours to understand what is contributing to the cause — rather than treating the effect – and it’s this missing information that’s needed to develop new school policies,” said Professor Sullivan.

It’s not just the immediate effect of removing a child from school that affects their education. Professor Sullivan understands that there are long-term implications for exclusion-related discipline measures. 

“In fact, there is a clear relationship between school suspensions and a range of detrimental health outcomes, including alienation from school, involvement with antisocial peers, use of alcohol and smoking and a lower quality of school life — and this contributes to a higher risk of dropping out of school and possible illegal behaviour,” said Professor Sullivan.

Some children in these vulnerable groups, such as children with autism spectrum disorder, may find themselves at risk of exclusion because of behaviours they exhibit.

Currently, around one percent of children in Australia are estimated to be living with autism spectrum disorder and a total of more than 205,000 Australian adults and children living with ASD, based on data from 2019.

Common difficulties for people with ASD fall into three main categories, namely:

  • social interactions;
  • verbal and nonverbal communication;
  • repetitive or ritualistic behaviours.

Children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can find it difficult to read the body language and emotions of others, this can be misunderstood as a lack of emotion or empathy. Educators may interpret poor behaviour such as screaming or yelling as a tantrum rather than a meltdown caused by a different reason. 

The difference between a tantrum and a meltdown is that a tantrum is often utilised to reach an end goal, such as not following instructions, whereas a meltdown is an involuntary response to stimuli such as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity, e.g. if a sound is too loud or too quiet, respectively.

Children who are non-verbal or have minimal verbal communication may find it difficult to express their needs and advocate for themselves during such moments. 

In Australia, over 32 percent of students with autism spectrum disorder have a year 10 education level or lower, highlighting the importance of making education more accessible. By increasing specific training for teachers to improve their knowledge of teaching students living with disability, researchers are hopeful that this could improve students’ successes at school.

Learning more about how to increase inclusivity in the classroom is the first step to ensuring that children with disability get an equal education to their peers who don’t live with disability. Read more about how to be a better teacher for students living with disability.


Has your child been excluded from school? How did this affect their schooling success?

Let the team at Talking Disability know on social media. 

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