Sean Mooney writes about playgroups catering to the needs of children with autism spectrum disorders or ASD-like symptoms, and their carers.
Thursdays and Saturdays are four-year-old Sienna's favourite days, because she knows she's going somewhere special. Her mum, Patricia, likes these days too, because she can meet up with like-minded parents and not have to worry about being judged or scolded for her daughter's behaviour.
Since the start of 2011, Patricia has been taking Sienna to a special playgroup for pre-school children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or ASD-like symptoms. She says the PlayConnect program run by Playgroup NSW has been a great help to her and her daughter. "It's great for the kids because they interact with other children, which is something you really want with autism," she says. "It's also a really good way to get more information from other parents who are going through the same thing."
Parents and carers of children with special needs often don’t know where to turn while waiting for a definitive diagnosis of ASD, or if the criteria for diagnosis are not fully met. Playgroup NSW development worker Rachael Field says PlayConnect is designed to provide support for such families. "There’s no referral needed and children don't have to be diagnosed to attend," she says. "There's a lack of services for children and families going through the diagnosis – or they could have a speech or developmental delay and they’re not sure where to go – so PlayConnects are a great way for them to come and talk to other families and get some ideas about what services other families are accessing."
Field believes families feel supported in their PlayConnect groups. "It's come up quite often that parents have gone into community or church-run playgroups and haven't felt comfortable," she says. "Families benefit so much from PlayConnect because they can be totally themselves and not worry about anybody judging them or putting them down or freaking out if a child lashes out or has a meltdown. They know the other parents in the group understand because they are in the same situation."
Funded by the Federal Government, PlayConnect is often referred to as a 'soft-entry point' to ASD-support services. Field, who has a background in community services and youth work, says PlayConnect facilitators have a variety of skills. "They're not necessarily specifically trained, but everyone brings something different on board," she says. "Some facilitators are special-needs trained, some are from early-childhood education, and others have children with special needs. We're there to facilitate the group, run activities, and provide information; it's really the families who support each other."
During each session, carers and children (and often siblings) participate in a range of specially designed play activities and experiences. Patricia says Field, who runs the PlayConnect playgroup in Greenacre, has established a routine the kids feel comfortable with, but which challenges and engages them. "They come in, they play, then they have an activity, then we have songs, and then we’ll go back to playing," Patricia says. "And she's created wall charts which are great for children with autism, as they really relate to images and it’s easy for them to understand."
Patricia says she particularly enjoyed a music-therapy program introduced to them earlier this year. "It opened up ideas for different ways of dealing with our kids, which I wouldn't have come across if it wasn't for the playgroup," she says. "And they bring in people who do therapy to talk to the parents every couple of weeks, and that’s really helpful." Field stresses that while PlayConnect provides "engaging and sensory activities", it sets out to be a support service rather than a specialist therapeutic provider. "Some people think it’s going to be a different kind of therapy," she says, "but the playgroup's not just for the children, it's for the parents as well. For those who attend consistently it’s like a lifeline."
Patricia believes the more people who can access services such as PlayConnect, the better. "There are plenty of people who don’t understand a lot about what they can do or get out of the system in Australia," she says. "It's really good to get some contacts and hear about different therapists through word of mouth from someone who is actually going through it."
Field recalls one mother who joined a PlayConnect group earlier this year. "She was referred by her GP to a specialist then started speech therapy after diagnosis and was getting charged probably three times the amount that the families in my group have been paying," Field says. "So she's come to our group and the other families have told her about community speech therapy and other avenues she can look at."
Sandy Kervin, acting CEO of Playgroup NSW, says these opportunities for parents and carers to share experiences and discuss the local services and therapies are invaluable. "PlayConnect playgroups are so welcoming and supportive for families at a time when they can be feeling isolated as they adjust to a diagnosis," Kervin says. However, Field explains that as with all disability-support services, spaces are limited. "The funding is only sufficient to open a certain number," she says.
As long as some funding exists, development workers such as Field will continue to help those families able to access programs such as PlayConnect. "I'm passionate about helping the children to advance, creating a good environment for the families, and getting them in contact with other families," Field says. "It's all about setting up a strong support system for them to rely on."
PlayConnect playgroups operating in the greater Sydney region are:
- Green Valley
- Harris Park
- St Marys
This article was first published in the October 2011 edition of Sydney’s Child.