Autism and Grade Retention

team of adults meeting about child

Deciding whether to hold a child back a grade is difficult, especially when you have a child with ASD. As a developmental disorder, this child is likely delayed in some areas, while being on track or even advanced in others. This means you can't use a single factor to make the decision. However, as with all things related to autism, research can help you choose.

Understanding Grade Retention and Autism

Although there haven't been any full studies on grade retention in children with autism, the general practice of repeating grades is declining. According to the journal Educational Researcher, only about 1.5% of students were held back in the 2009-2010 school year, down from 3% in 2004-2005. The study notes that it's very difficult to get accurate figures for grade retentions, since schools are not required to report these figures to the state.

However, the number of children diagnosed with autism has increased significantly in the same time period. The CDC reports that in 2004, one in 125 children had an autism diagnosis. In 2010, the prevalence was up to one in 68. This may indicate that children with autism are not "held back" at a higher rate than the general population.

Reasons to Consider Grade Retention

There are cases where repeating a grade may be beneficial to the child. If your child's IEP team is seriously considering this issue or if you would like to suggest it as an option, consider the following possible benefits:

  • Early intervention can make a big difference, even in early elementary school. If the child is young, this may be an ideal time to focus on the areas the child needs to work on without the added challenge of a new grade. A study published in Psychology in the Schools found that kindergarteners with social skills deficits benefitted from early intervention and a repeated year.
  • Middle school is another time grade retention could benefit a child. The Atlantic published an in-depth article focused on the idea of giving children an extra year of middle school. This extra time gave the kids a chance to mature in general, but it was especially helpful to those with executive functioning challenges, a common issue for kids with ASD. They were better able to organize themselves in preparation for high school and college.
  • For kids with academic challenges, in addition to the social, communication, and behavioral challenges that come with ASD, Jackson Autism Center notes that grade retention might give them a chance to catch up with peers in the classroom. This may make it easier for the child to focus on the other areas of challenge and make progress on goals.

Why Being "Held Back" May Be Ineffective

Even with these possible benefits, grade retention isn't an ideal solution for many kids. It comes with its own set of additional challenges, and those can be especially difficult for kids with ASD:

  • Simply repeating a grade without changing strategies may not benefit the child. According to The Wrightslaw Way, this practice is common, but you can also influence it by participating in the IEP meeting. If the school team is proposing retention without changing any other strategies or therapies, the child is not likely to make progress on goals.
  • Students who repeat grades are 60% less likely to graduate when compared to students who were promoted with peers. This is true even for the elementary grades. There's no data specific to students with autism, but it's an important consideration to keep in mind.
  • Retention may help a child socially in the short term, but it can have very negative effects long term, according to a study in the Journal of Educational Psychology. This is especially important to consider in kids with autism as they may already struggle with social skills. A short term benefit is good, but if it comes at the cost of longer term social challenges, it may not be worth it.

Making the Decision

Adults meeting about child

If you're considering grade retention for a child with ASD, consider the following tips:

  • Be an active participant in the child's team. Ask questions, even if they are hard to answer. Suggest options you think might help the team support your child, whether or not a grade is repeated.
  • Make sure something changes in the support strategy if the team opts to hold the child back. Focus on what else is changing, such as increased therapy hours, a different teacher, or alternative teaching methods.
  • Consider the whole child. While a kid with ASD may have delays in some areas, he or she may be advanced in others. How will repeating a grade help or hinder the child in the areas of challenge and the areas of strength?
  • Ask for data. If the school team decides to have the child repeat a grade, ask for regular progress reports to ensure the child is making progress on goals. If that's not happening, something else needs to change.

Trust Your Instincts

Ultimately, the decision to have a child repeat a grade is a hard one, especially for a child with ASD. Follow your instincts about questions and concerns you may have as well as what you feel is the best decision.

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Autism and Grade Retention