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Autistic children in New Zealand are almost three times more likely to be stood down or suspended from school than children who aren’t autistic, a major new study has found.

Researchers say removing those students from school “punishes them for their disability” as schools don’t realise a student lashing out could be a medical event, not deliberate misbehaviour.

But there’s good news – autistic students who received ongoing high-needs funding through the Ministry of Education were no more likely to be suspended or stood down than the general population, suggesting better financial support for autistic kids could lower suspension rates.

The research was funded by A Better Start National Science Challenge and published today in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers used linked health and education data held by Statistics NZ and found of the 737,000 students at New Zealand schools in 2018, 9700 (around 1.3 per cent) were autistic.

Just over 500 of them, or one in 20, were formally stood down or suspended at least once in 2018 compared to 14,000 non-autistic students – or one in 50. The data does not include so-called “Kiwi suspensions”, where children are stood down informally – which is illegal.

Adjusting for demographic factors, autistic children were almost three times as likely to be suspended or stood down.

But one thing that made a stark difference was if a child with autism received funding from the Ministry of Education’s Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS).

The scheme provides continued funding for children with the highest level of needs, and pays for supports like teacher aides. The research found the benefits of ORS funding held true even when controlling for confounding factors like the level of disability support need or other health conditions.

Lead author Nick Bowden, a phD student at Otago University, said the most plausible conclusion was that “putting high-need funding or targeted funding around kids that need it – autistic students that need it – results in better outcomes.”

The results were “pretty powerful … and hard to ignore, hopefully, for policy-makers”.

Stand-downs and suspensions are clearly associated with poor academic achievement, Bowden said. Downstream effects could be “really, really dire”, from poor employment opportunities to substance abuse and jail.

Co-author and disability advocate Joanne Dacombe, who is autistic, said ORS funding for autistic kids usually meant paying for a teacher aide who may help the child cope at school.

Without that support or an understanding environment, autistic students could be overwhelmed, potentially leading to a meltdown.

Dacombe is not surprised at the rate of stand-downs among autistic students  – but she was surprised to see how much of a difference ORS made.

For autistic students, ORS funding generally meant a teacher aide, which had a host of benefits – from preventing bullying to noticing when a child was overwhelmed and getting them to take a break.

She also suspected schools were more tolerant of autistic children with ORS funding, so would be less likely to suspend them.


Photo credit: Alexander Dumm/Unsplash

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