Autistic students in NZ three times more likely to be stood down, suspended – new research

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.

The 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 – those 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 used linked health and education data held by Statistics NZ. It found of the 737,000 students at New Zealand schools in 2018, 9700 were autistic or around 1.3 per cent.

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.

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 the autistic child 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.

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

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.

“An autistic child will get bullied – it might be little things all week, and then by Friday it’s accumulated in that autistic child’s mind, and they’ll lash out at the one little thing. It’ll seem out of proportion, the teacher will be like ‘Oh that’s really violent’. They won’t recognise it as a medical event,” she said.

That was the case for Thomas*, who is autistic and has ADHD but does not receive ORS funding. He was stood down in late 2020 – aged 11 – which led to him being excluded.

Mum Annabelle said items near his desk being moved had put him on edge. One day he returned to his desk to find his chair gone and accused another boy of taking it.

“[Another] kid said ‘it’s just a chair’ and that tipped him over the edge. He was obviously upset, nobody was helping .. and he punched one of the boys.”

A restorative justice meeting left Thomas with a police record, and he was put in a different class away from his “safe space”. He started Year 8 in a state of high anxiety. By March 2021 Thomas had racked up the maximum amount of stand-down days for one term and was suspended, then excluded from school.

Annabelle, who asked her last name not be used to protect her son’s privacy, acknowledged Thomas’ behaviour had become severe.

“But the problem is, where was it coming from? They never looked at that. If you only focus on the behaviour, not why, you’re not going to solve it.”

Now at high school, Thomas is still dealing with trauma, Annabelle said. Her hopes for her “very smart, very funny” son are modest – to be in a place where he’s supported and understood, “and if I’m honest, I hope that by the time he’s 20, he’s not dead or in jail”.

By contrast, Nicola Parsons’ autistic son Sam does receive ORS funding, which helps fund a teacher aide.

Sam is very mathematical and loves numbers, but needs help in other areas to stay on task. The teacher aide also keeps him from getting overwhelmed.

“Overload is very common for autistics – it’s basically the crux of autism. Sensory overload, overload from noise – so having someone to monitor your wellbeing is essential because you nip it in the bud.”

Getting ORS funding for Sam was a huge relief, Parsons said.

“We’re in an incredibly great circumstances but … I am here on behalf of most other people.”

Dacombe hears stories like Thomas’ almost every day and was 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.

The research did not look at other disabilities like ADHD but would likely show similar results, she said.

But despite the clear benefits of ORS, it was capped well below the level of need in New Zealand, meaning children had to compete for funding. Even those who got it often were only part-funded, Dacombe said.

The Government is currently reviewing the supports available for students with the highest level of needs. Dacombe hoped that review would lead to a big increase in ORS funding as well as changes to the application process.

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti said the Ministry of Education was “not yet in a position to comment on any change of direction for ORS”.

The Highest Needs Review was focused on those with unmet needs as well as those who already got individualised support.

Submissions were being analysed and options would go to Tinetti in October.

Tinetti said not all children with autism needed specialist support, and those who weren’t eligible for ORS could get other help such as a Resource Teacher: Learning and Behaviour or a learning support specialist.

Support was provided in tiers “based on understanding the strengths and needs of ākonga [learners] within the context in which they learn, not a diagnosis”.

The Ministry collected data on stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions but there were no plans to systematically collect disability information, she said.

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