'Getting in early': WA to trial Australian-first autism program

Autism appears in about one per cent of children but because its rarely spotted before the age of three many don't get the early intervention work that could greatly improve their development down the track.

In an Australian first trial to begin next year a team of WA researchers hope to change that and fill a gap for autism early-intervention services.

West Perth child development service senior clinical psychologist Jane Doyle said the pilot project would improve children’s social and communicative development, and could ultimately mean more WA children at risk of autism are given timely and effective help.

"We're trying to capitalise on that particular age frame because we know it’s such an important time for childrens' brain development," she said.

"If we can get in really early we can hopefully put them on a healthier trajectory."

Eighty children aged from nine to 14 months who haven't been diagnosed with autism but are showing developmental issues will be recruited for the trial, which will involve parents performing intervention activities with their children in a group setting.

The sessions will be recorded and parents will be offered feedback on how to enhance communications with their children.

The therapy is modelled on an existing UK program delivered in the home and one-on-one.

WA researchers have run a trial of the one-on-one program but found while it is effective, it is labour intensive and costly.

The WA team has taken key elements of the program to develop a group-based intervention, which, apart from an initial home-based session, will be delivered in clinics to groups of up to six parents.

Dr Doyle said the group setting could prove to be effective.

"We think the benefits of the group are the shared experience that parents have, working with other parents that have developmental concerns," she said.

"It also provides them with a reflective space. A supportive reflective space for parents to consider the unique relationship they have with their child."

She said if successful the program could fill a huge gap in services available to parents worried their child may have development issues.

"There isn't a service available for a very early intervention program for parents who are concerned their child may have social communication difficulties," she said.

"We're providing a service that doesn't exist at the moment.

"I think the health economics of getting in early are pretty clear that it would be advantageous for us to offer this in a much more widespread way if we had the opportunity."

The trial is among 13 research projects that will share more than $3.5 million in the sixth round of the Telethon Perth Children’s hospital research fund.

Children will be recruited for the trial through referrals from child health nurses and general practitioners.

The program will begin next year.

Health Minister Roger Cook said the project would provide new hope for families with a child displaying early signs of autism.

"In Western Australia around 400 to 500 new cases of autism are diagnosed in children under six years of age every year, equivalent to one or two cases a day," he said.

“This project is an example of some of the exciting, innovative research taking place in Western Australia’s public health system."

from https://www.watoday.com.au/national/west...