Autism and Grade Retention

Ella Rain
Education for people with autism

Parents, educators and school psychologists may have to deal with the issue of autism and grade retention. Should a child on the spectrum stay behind his or her classmates to repeat a grade? As with a typical student, the decision depends on a number of factors.

What Is Grade Retention?

Students typically complete coursework and move on to the next grade along with their classmates. In some instances, it is necessary to hold a child back from moving on to the next grade with the rest of his or her class. Grade retention occurs when a student fails to master basic skills, and is unable to demonstrate academic competence.

In some school districts in the United States, students must pass minimum competency tests before progressing to the next grade. This can be problematic because teachers may tend to be "teaching to the test" rather than fostering learning. Making students repeat a grade is a difficult topic across the board, but special considerations apply to autism and grade retention.

Weighing Autism and Grade Retention

Is grade retention appropriate for an autistic student? The question is difficult to answer because the autism spectrum is so very broad. Each student is unique, and this applies to typical kids as well. If grade retention is necessary for some typical students, it may be necessary for some students with autism. However, there are some important issues to explore when dealing with students with disabilities, as outlined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA.


IDEA ensures that children with disabilities receive free and appropriate public education (FAPE). School districts work with parents to develop Individual Education Plans (IEP) that meet each student's respective needs. Inclusion is an important part of a student's education.

Grade retention is a difficult topic because autistic students may not be able to demonstrate understanding even when they do understand the material. Deficits in communication and information processing can interfere with a student's performance on tests, whether verbal or written.

Arguments for Grade Retention

A parent of an autistic student may want his or her child to repeat a grade, especially if the student is about to enter middle school. The transition from grade school to middle school can be very difficult for any student, and kids on the spectrum may be at risk for social difficulties as they enter seventh and eighth grades.

In some cases, parents choose to homeschool their middle school students with autism. In other instances, they may choose to send their kids to special schools during the onset of adolescence. Grade retention might allow a student to stay in school while developing important social and emotional skills to prepare for middle school.

Is allowing a student to avoid progressing to more challenging educational settings a good idea? What if a student fails to meet curriculum goals in first or second grade? Many, many professionals answer these question with a resounding, "No."

Arguments Against Grade Retention

Grade retention may not be appropriate for any student that has an Individual Education Plan (IEP). According to the Research Editor for Wrightslaw, Suzanne Whitney, retention is not good practice. Many departments of education agree and respected institutions agree.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) research publication, Grade Retention Achievement and Mental Health Outcomes, finds that retention is ineffective, and perhaps even harmful. According to NASP's research, students with learning disabilities are more likely to repeat grades than their peers are. In addition, retention can lead to significant problems for the student trying to adjust socially and emotionally.

The social and emotional impact of retention is a major concern in cases of autism. A student on the spectrum already faces challenges navigating the social world. Repeating a grade may exasperate the problem.

NASP also finds that retention has a negative impact on all areas of achievement and socio-emotional adjustment.


The Grade Retention Fallacy offers alternatives to retention:

  • Individual tutoring
  • Early intervention
  • Intensive instruction
  • Counseling and support services

Resisting Mandatory Retention

If your child has to repeat a grade, but you do not agree with the decision, you can get help. The Wrightslaw organization features 10 Strategies to Fight Mandatory Retention and Other Damaging Policies.

Inclusion and the Autistic Student

Inclusion can be difficult to achieve for all students. In some cases, alternative educational settings or homeschooling are more appropriate. Many students on the autism spectrum thrive in the classroom atmosphere, but if grade retention is appropriate for some typical students, then it may be appropriate for some students with autism. The question is whether the practice is beneficial for any student, whether on the spectrum or not.

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Autism and Grade Retention