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Understanding how ableism impacts inclusion of autistic children in ECE in New Zealand

Research shows that, despite the promise of inclusive early childhood education (ECE) in national and international legislation, disabled children and their families are still marginalised in ECE (Lyons, 2021; Macartney, 2011, 2019; Purdue, 2009). Recent work in Critical Disability Studies (CDS) and Disability Studies in Education (DSE) has connected this ongoing marginalisation of disabled children to the bias associated with ableism. Ableism is influenced by the ideology of normalcy, which produces the notion of a ‘normal’ child, and simultaneously conceptualises a disabled child as ‘other’ in relation to their rights and participation. However, ableism and its impact on excluding disabled children and their families in ECE have been given little acknowledgement (Love & Beneke, 2021; Macartney, 2019). To address this gap, this study investigates whether and how ableism operates in an ECE setting in New Zealand, in order to understand its impact on the inclusion of autistic children and their families. Additionally, this study explores how disability awareness and critical reflection on their practices can help teachers support inclusive practices for autistic children. The study also analyses key policy documents in early childhood education and special education. This study adopted the theoretical frameworks of Disability Studies in Education (DSE) and ableism. DSE challenges ableist ideologies and practices that dehumanise disabled children and focuses on the role of educational settings and broader society in supporting inclusion (Baglieri & Bacon, 2020). The research uses two data sets i) two policy documents, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education (MoE), 2017) and Success for All (MoE, 2010), and ii) a case study within an ECE setting. The methods used to collect case study data included individual interviews with staff as well as a parent of an autistic child; video recordings and observations of interactions with autistic children in the ECE setting; a teachers’ focus group discussion; and analysis of documents written and used in the ECE setting. The analytical tools of thematic analysis and Fairclough’s (1995, 2003) approach of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) were used to identify the discourses of ableism within both data sets. The thesis examines how these discourses as social practices disrupted the inclusion of autistic children. The findings indicate evidence of ableism operating in ECE policies and interactions in the ECE setting via the dominant discourses of developmental psychology, the medical model of disability, special education, and neoliberalism, and indicate that these discourses inform disablist practices that negatively impact the inclusion of autistic children. The findings also highlight that disability awareness and providing space, time and collaborative support to teachers for critically reflecting on their practices can positively change their thinking towards autistic children and empower them to affect changes in their teaching. A key argument is that the theoretical understanding developed in this study draws attention to the importance of the DSE framework in recognising and challenging ableism and reorienting thinking around inclusion in ECE policy and practice. Accordingly, the study offers theoretical ideas that can be used to work against ableism and promote inclusive practice for autistic and other disabled children.  
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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