Autistic child, Charlotte

Linda Wyrill reports on support available to children with autism and their families.

About one in 100 Australian children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). More children now are being diagnosed before the age of six, and most commonly between two and two-and-a-half, says Jesse Doherty, Autism SA early intervention and clinical services manager.

Awareness of the condition has increased, and signs of autism often appear before a child turns two. "Parents notice a language decline at about 18 months; children lose some social skills for no reason, and there is an increase in repetitive behaviour," she says.

Autism SA works with children under the age of seven, conducting individual intensive therapy and group sessions that help develop social and self-regulation skills. "For some children with autism everything is black and white, so they don't develop some social skills," says Doherty. "They have trouble understanding social rules. Some children have huge issues with sensory overload. They withdraw or exhibit repetitive behaviours."

Autism SA provides services such as occupational therapy (OT), speech pathology, psychology, development education, as well as support for children at their childcare centre or kindergarten. Autism SA also runs a specialist foundations skills group at Manor Farm Kindergarten in Salisbury East. Children practise basic skills such as playing, taking turns, social skills, eating morning tea, and following instructions. Rebecca's four-year-old son Ben was two when she noticed things weren't quite right. "One of the first things was that Ben didn't make eye contact, and his verbalisation was down from his peers," she says. At two-and-a-half, Ben was diagnosed with autism. While the family has received Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) funding from the Federal Government, Rebecca says the money "goes very quickly".

Autism SA fundraising and communications manager Anthea Rice says expenses can mount for families. "If a family needs one session of speech therapy and one of OT each week, that can cost around $300," she says. Rice says it is important to register early with a service provider such as Autism SA or Disability SA, to access services and early intervention, which are so important. However, HCWA funding is only available up to a child's seventh birthday. There is some funding for support in the school years, but demand for services exceeds the allocated funding.

Sarah Ferguson, service coordinator at the Anglicare-run Daphne Street Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre, says any intervention before the age of seven will have the best outcomes. "All children have the potential to flourish, and early intervention provides a solid foundation for the future." Daphne Street provides in-class support within a specialised childcare setting. Each child is case-managed by specialists, including an occupational therapist, speech pathologist and early-childhood teacher.

Ferguson says families need support, too. Childcare gives respite to carers, and Daphne Street also runs family-support groups, training, information sessions and family picnic days. "Children with autism can't always just go to the park with the family," says Ferguson. "Sensory sensitivities and unfamiliar environments can be too overwhelming. Here, families can come together for a day out in a safe environment."

This article was first published in the October 2012 edition of Adelaide's Child.

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