What to Look for in Child Care for Autistic Children

Group of young children playing at a table with a young woman supervising

Hispanolistic/Getty Images

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

If you work and have an autistic toddler or young child, you need childcare. Some parents are fortunate to have a relative or friend available to jump in, but for others, finding an appropriate, affordable, safe, accepting, and supportive childcare setting for an autistic child can be a challenge. But when it's a good fit, says Michelle Haney, PhD and Henry Gund Professor of Psychology at Berry College in Georgia, after-school and daycare programs can be a great experience for children on the spectrum. "After-school programs can be a great time to expand social skills, communication skills, and independence," she says. "If the teaching supports can be extended into the after-school setting, being with neurotypical kids can be a chance to really build relationships and play skills."

Types of Available Childcare Options

Several different types of childcare and afterschool care programs are available for autistic children, depending on their individual needs. Sometimes, the program is already set up with appropriate support, staffing, and safety measures. In many cases, however, you may need to take a hands-on approach to ensure that any given setting is appropriate for your child.

Free Programs Through Your Child's School

If your child is under the age of 6 and has an autism diagnosis, your state may provide a free program. Such a program may run only a few hours a week and only during the school year. Your child may also qualify for the Extended Year Summer Program throughout their school experience. If this is the case, the hours will certainly be limited.

Your child's school may run its own after-school program. Such programs are usually held at the school and may be based in the gym or cafeteria. The school is not obliged to provide such programs, and they are not obliged to adapt them to your child's needs. For many children with autism, a loud and relatively unstructured program in a cafeteria or gym is not a good match. It's always worth talking with your school staff about accommodations, but be aware that any accommodations made are voluntary and can disappear for a number of reasons.

Typical Preschools and Daycares

Very young autistic children may be easily accommodated at a typical preschool or daycare. That's because "autistic behaviors" and "behaviors of very young children" aren't necessarily all that different. All very young children are still developing language, toilet skills, social skills, and spoken language. While your child may be developing differently, most programs for the youngest children expect occasional temper tantrums, dirty diapers, and difficulties with sharing, asking and answering questions, and other skills. They will also have strict security measures in place to be sure children don't wander off on their own.

At a certain point, however, certain issues may arise which could signal it's time to move on from typical childcare. These issues are likely to include self-isolation, significant language delays, behavioral differences or problems, and social communication delays. Another major issue that can impact your child's eligibility for typical preschool programs is toileting. If your autistic child is older than 3 or 4 and can't use the toilet independently, they may need to be in a program that caters to developmental differences.

Typical After-School Programs

As your child gets older, they may be in school for a part of the day but need an after-school program as well. After-school programs can be tricky for autistic children because a child over the age of 6 is expected to have many skills that some autistic children lack. For example, they are expected to simply "make friends" without support, use the toilet on their own, do their homework with minimal support, and play social and/or athletic games on their own. They are also expected to manage their emotions and behaviors. Few neurotypical children over the age of 8 have true meltdowns, and, if they do, they may be asked to leave a program.

All that said, however, there are community organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA which are accustomed to serving children from all backgrounds and with all levels of ability. They are also usually dedicated to inclusion. If you have such an organization nearby, it is well worth your while to consider them for after-school care.

Autism-Specific Programs

Some communities, particularly big cities, do have programs set up specifically for autistic children. These, of course, have pros and cons. On the pro side, there is an excellent chance that your child will be safe and well cared for, and it is unlikely that you'll run into issues if your child behaves in unexpected ways. On the con side, such programs are usually quite expensive (though it's worth asking about available funding). In addition, an autism-only program may be inappropriate if your child is relatively high functioning.

Annemarie Clarke, PhD, is the corporate officer for behavioral health and autism services
at SPIN in Philadelphia, which offers a range of services for children with autism and their families. "There are some situations in which autism-only is a good option," she explains. "We can accurately diagnose very young children with autism; depending on the level of severity, sometimes it’s hard to include those children in an integrated community setting. Sensory challenges, communication, and behaviors may be challenging, and an autism-only setting can provide more skill-building opportunities than a typical afterschool program."

What to Look for in a Childcare or After-School Setting

No matter what your autistic child's age, abilities, or behaviors are, you will want to be sure that they are safe, comfortable, appropriately supported and disciplined, and as engaged as possible. No setting will be perfect, but there are some important elements to look for or add to help your child be as successful as possible.

"I tell parents: you need to have an honest conversation with yourself about what their child’s skill level is, what their sensory needs are, and what their challenging behaviors might be," says Dr. Clark. For example, if your child has a meltdown when the day goes off schedule, that's a structure concern. If they run away when faced with difficulties, that could be a safety issue. You have to consider all these factors when looking at a care setting.

Staff-to-Child Ratio

While the staff-to-child ratio is always very high for toddlers, it gets lower and lower as children get older. In some situations, that can mean one adult in a room full of children. This can be a problem if your autistic child needs extra support or supervision. Look for the highest possible ratio of adults to children in any childcare or after-school setting you choose.


For many children on the spectrum, safety is a huge issue. Even older children may not be able to predict what could happen if they, for example, walk into a parking lot or run out of a building. While daycare settings are usually very safe, after-school settings for older children may not have enough safety measures in place.

Check to see that doors are kept closed. If there are doors your child can open on their own, ask that a sound alarm (or bell) be put in place. Find out what the policy is on bathroom use, and if your child needs a staff member to accompany them, be sure to express that need ahead of time.


Most autistic children thrive in structured settings, but some after-school settings can be relatively unstructured. Look for a program that has a clear-cut schedule that children must follow on a regular basis. For example, some programs start with a snack, include homework time, and then offer a few options for free time. Others simply provide a supervised location. The more structure, the better for most autistic children.

Sensory Concerns

Many children with autism have trouble with bright lights, loud noise, physical crowding, sweat, cold, and other physical sensations. Yet many after-school activities are held in brightly lit, very loud spaces. If your child has sensory challenges, look for a setting that offers incandescent versus fluorescent lighting. Try to avoid echoing spaces like gyms or after-school programs that emphasize team sports. If possible, look for settings where your child can find pillows, quiet spots, ball pits, and other sensory-friendly options. You may also want to provide a child-sized popup tent and some of your child's favorite sensory toys or videos as a time-out space for calming down.

Support and Discipline

Even if a childcare provider has no training or experience with autism, they may have a natural talent for supporting a child who needs extra help. Ask questions like, "What would you do for my child if they had trouble with X," or "How would you help my child to do Y?" If you don't like the answers, you probably need to keep looking.

It's very important that childcare providers attend to your child's attempts to communicate, keeping in mind that some autistic children communicate through behaviors rather than words. In some cases, however, well-intentioned adults may allow your child too much leeway, and it's never okay for your child (or any other child) to hit or hurt. Discuss your child's communication style, and plan ahead for possible disciplinary needs. What can or should they do if your child has a meltdown or behaves aggressively?

Troubleshooting in Advance

If you have an autistic child in a typical childcare situation, chances are some issues will arise from time to time. With that in mind, it's best to have some plans in place.

Communication with your childcare provider is key. Be sure you are honest about your child's challenges, and provide as many resources as you can to help your child succeed. Listen to your childcare provider when they bring up issues, and take any action you can to help resolve them. Remember that, unlike schools, after-school and daycare providers are not legally required to accommodate your child. If they are doing so, it's because they want your child to be successful, and it's important to work within their parameters whenever you can.

At some point, depending on your child's progress, behavior, and needs, you may find yourself without a childcare or afterschool provider. Know in advance how you'll handle such a situation, so you don't wind up in a crisis situation. Will your employer allow you time off, or allow you to work remotely for a period of time? Is there another childcare provider in the area who is willing and able to say "yes" to your child, even for a short period of time?

A Word From Verywell

It may not be easy to find the right daycare or after-school setting for your autistic child, but it's well worth the time and effort to make a good match. If the setting is right, your child may learn a whole range of new social skills, and even build friendships that can last a lifetime.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Haney MR. After school care for children on the autism spectrumJ Child Fam Stud. 2012;21(3):466-473. doi:10.1007/s10826-011-9500-1

  2. Administration for Children and Families. Services for Children with Disabilities.

  3. Indiana Resource Center for Autism. Teaching Tips for Children and Adults with Autism.

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tips For Keeping Children Safe: A Developmental Guide - Preschoolers.

  5. Maricopa Community Colleges. Childcare, Afterschool and Youth Programs.

  6. Tan CD, Eyal G. Two opposite ends of the world: the management of uncertainty in an autism-only schoolJournal of Contemporary Ethnography. 2015;44(1):34-62. doi:10.1002/aur.2670Ci

  7. Lushin V, Marcus S, Gaston D, et al. The role of staffing and classroom characteristics on preschool teachers' use of one-to-one intervention with children with autismAutism. 2020;24(8):2035-2045. doi:10.1177/1362361320932726

  8. Sahin, Candan H. Home Safety Skills to Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Multilevel Mixed Study. Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal. 2022. doi:10.1080/09362835.2022.2130320

  9. Nebraska Autism Spectrum Disorders Network, University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Rules and Routines.

  10. Kirby AV, Bilder DA, Wiggins LD, et al. Sensory features in autism: Findings from a large population based surveillance systemAutism Research. 2022;15(4):751-760. doi:10.1002/aur.2670

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.