Research shows that early detection generally leads to better outcomes for children, which is why a new program to identify and support autistic preschoolers is being piloted by researchers from the Autism Clinic at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.  

“We know that children who are identified and diagnosed early – say around the age of two compared with the age of four – have better access to supports earlier, improved cognitive abilities, need fewer supports on an ongoing basis, and have a greater likelihood to be effectively included in their mainstream classroom,” clinic lead Dr Hannah Waddington says.

“So it is really, really important to be identifying early to give those children the best start.”

Through the programme, Raupī te Raupō, 300 health and education professionals have been trained to identify the early signs of autism in children under five, and refer them to the Autism Clinic for immediate support.

Support will be provided free of charge to 60 children and their families in the Wellington region, over 20 weeks beginning in May.

In a world-first move, the programme has been designed in close collaboration with an advisory group made up of autistic people, and another made up of Māori.  

“We designed the whole program alongside them right from the start, just to make sure it suited the community and also was both neuro-affirming and culturally responsive,” Waddington says.

Early childhood educators as well as GPs, Plunket nurses and allied health professionals have been trained in using the Monitoring of Social Attention, Interaction and Communication (MoSAIC) tool.

“MoSAIC was developed by Dr Josephine Barbaro from Australia’s La Trobe University and is recognised internationally as the best tool for identifying autistic children,” Waddington says.

The training has been welcomed by the preschool teachers involved, as Waddington says there isn’t typically much offered in this area.

“We hear from a lot of teachers entering the workforce, as well as those who have been in the workforce for a while, they would really like more training on neurodiversity within, for example, the initial teacher education program.

“[Training on] neurodiversity more broadly and how to identify and support children early, they’re really crying out for it.”

Raupī te Raupō provides children and their families with tailored support that is delivered by coaches through weekly sessions.

Coaches talk with the family about strategies that might be helpful for the child.

There are also practical sessions where whānau and the coach play and interact with the child.

Waddington says strong relationships are fundamental to the program.

“So we spend a lot of time getting to know the family, getting to know the child, and their aspirations for the more immediate and distant future, and tailoring our approach according to them.

“If that relationship is not there, then you’re not going to be able to move forward.”

Providing the pilot is successful, Waddington hopes to make a case for increased funding, and for early detection pathways to be rolled out across Aotearoa.

Because currently, she says, the system is letting many children and families down.

“The GP, their Plunket nurse, their early childhood educators, don’t necessarily know how to identify signs [of autism] in younger children,” she says.

“So parents’ signs might be dismissed by those professionals when they first raise them, and even when they get referred on, they might be waiting easily a year or more for diagnostic assessments.

“We know it’s really difficult for families to find help

“By offering support as soon as signs of autism are observed, we hope to reduce a lot of stress and improve outcomes for the whole whānau,” Waddington adds.