April 6, 2009
A visiting US autism expert says that while the disorder has no cure, many children with it can be taught to be so "functional" they overcome its most incapacitating features.
The key, says Dr Richard Solomon, is for parents of autistic children to intervene early with sensory-focused play which, he adds, may at first feel counter-intuitive.
One in every 160 Australian children aged between six and 12 will have an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a range of neurobiological disorders with an unknown cause which affects development of communication and social skills.
Symptoms including delayed speech and a lack of eye contact leave many parents feeling unable to relate to their child, Dr Solomon says.
"We teach parents to give up their ideas for a while, we know what they want - language, social interaction, they want their kids to go to college," he says.
"But in order to get there you'll have to really watch your child, to see what brings them joy.
"It really boils down to hard work and engagement ... and you'll have to do things that feel like they don't make a lot of sense in terms of education."
Dr Solomon is in Australia to teach the trainers who will deliver a new in-the-home service for parents of autistic children.
The PLAY (Play and Language for Autistic Youngsters) Project shows parents how "sensory play" can be used to develop a link with their autistic child, and how this is a vital step in improving communication and social skills.
This play can range from gently pinching the child's finger tips through to "rough-housing" play or, Dr Solomon says, the universal favourite of them in a blanket.
"Sensory play is very engaging and yet most parents don't think of it being very helpful," he says.
"It will engage a child (with autism) much more than puzzles or books ... that's the first step, to get a connection and the next step is language."
About 1,000 autistic children have gone through the program in the US and it is also being introduced to India, the UK and the Netherlands.
Australian parents can access the service for free through the federal government's Helping Children with Autism package, which provides grants up to $6,000 to pay for support-related services.
Dr Solomon says that while the PLAY Project was beneficial for any parent's relationship with their autistic child, the majority of children emerged from it with clear developmental gains.
"And of those that do excellently, not all of them will end up in regular school without help but many will ... and they will make friends and they will go on to be successful in life," he says.
"I don't like to say you can cure autism, but you can help kids to become so functional that there is basically no difference between them and their typical peers."
The PLAY Project is delivered in NSW by Northcott Disability Services. For more information call 1800 004 957.
© 2009 AAP