Pre-School Chaos

More and more pre-school teachers are encountering youngsters diagnosed with autism in their classrooms. From the perspective of a child with autism, the group pre-school experience can seem chaotic, even under the leadership of the most extraordinary teacher. The youngster is having to process all the sounds, songs, colorful decorations, activities, people, and events swirling around them. Let’s take a look at some of the challenges encountered by little ones in a pre-school classroom.

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TRANSITION. Our friends tend to focus on one activity and to resist changing to a new activity. Even when heading for a favorite activity, individuals with autism struggle with transition. Inflexibility and transition issues often lead to severe emotional meltdowns, resulting in pre-schoolers with autism being viewed as difficult, stubborn, and disruptive.
BOUNDARIES. Many early childhood group activities are on the floor with no visible boundaries. The lack of a defined sitting space leads most pre-schoolers to lie on their backs, lean on their neighbors, and kick their feet. These and other wiggly, squirmy actions interfere with their participation in the group. The squirmy issue is often magnified with a child with autism.
CHANGE OF RULES. During free time and play time, pre-schoolers are encouraged to run and shout and throw balls and talk to their friends. All of a sudden, the rules change when they come to circle time. Even very cooperative, compliant kids have trouble sorting out different rules for different places in the same classroom.
FOCUS. The teacher must be somewhat of an entertainer in order to capture and hold the attention of the students during group time. Circle time usually consists of singing songs, using puppets, telling stories, and displaying pictures and interesting objects. When teaching youngsters with autism, there is a fine line between these two principles: (1) making things interesting enough to capture and maintain attention, and (2) making things too bright and too noisy and too fast, leading to sensory overload.
PARTICIPATION. Social interaction, receptive language, expressive language, and reciprocal communication are all skills necessary for successful participation in most group activities. ALL of these areas are inherently challenging for individuals with autism.

Given these factors, it is easy to see how a youngster with autism might perceive a pre-school classroom as chaotic. lWe invite you to share your observations and experiences. Just click on the comments button or send an e-mail to

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me an email with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. Send email to And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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