The lives of autistic people and their families are set to be transformed, with all babies born in Victoria to be monitored for early signs of autism during routine health checks.
This means more children will be diagnosed much earlier than currently and will receive life-changing intervention with improved long-term outcomes.
Thanks to funding from the Victorian Government, La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) will provide specialist training for all Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nurses in Victoria to build their skills and confidence in reliably identifying the early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) during routine checks at 12, 18 and 24 months.
Minister for Early Childhood Education Jenny Mikakos announced a $1.1 million package to train all MCH nurses in early identification of autism for children aged under three.
“This is about giving every child every chance to succeed and making sure those living with Autism Spectrum Disorder have the same opportunities as everybody else,” Minister Mikakos said.
La Trobe Vice Chancellor Professor John Dewar thanked State Government for the funding, saying it reflects the University’s high impact research which is making a real difference to people’s lives.
“Thirteen years of intensive research and evaluation by our OTARC team have gone into developing the screening tool which reliably identifies early autism signs, along with extensive training for maternal and child health nurses,” Professor Dewar said.
“It’s wonderful that the huge benefits of this research for those living with autism and their families will be felt with this significant investment.”
Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, Director of La Trobe’s OTARC, welcomed the funding and said it will ensure more children with autism are identified and diagnosed earlier – with considerably improved long-term outcomes.
“Research has shown that 82 per cent of babies who show early behavioural signs of autism at 12, 18 and 24 months have autism,” Professor Dissanayake said.
“We know that children diagnosed at two or younger do considerably better intellectually by school age than those diagnosed at the age of three or later.
“Earlier identification and diagnosis enables those with autism to receive intervention in their early and most important years, with massively improved longer term prospects.”
Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe’s OTARC, Dr Josephine Barbaro – who led the breakthrough Social Attention and Communications Study (SACS), which influenced a parliamentary recommendation to fund all maternal and child health nurses in Victoria – said the training will develop nurses in both identifying early signs and in supporting parents.
“The training will give maternal and child health nurses confidence in spotting the early signs of autism in infants and creating referral pathways, as well as in how to raise concerns with parents in an empathetic and supportive way,” Dr Barbaro said.
“We want to empower the parents as well as the nurses, to prevent the huge gap between parents’ first concerns and a definitive diagnosis, which can often be incredibly frustrating.”
The professional development package will be offered to all 1,250 MCH nurses currently delivering the service in Victoria and will include both online and face-to-face training.
Training has already been rolled out across Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and in many other countries, with over 98 per cent of nurses reporting confidence in identifying early signs and deciding which referral paths to follow.
Read more about OTARC’s world-leading research into early detection of autism and the Social Attention and Communication Study (SACS).