La Trobe nursing breakthrough will improve autism diagnosis around Victoria

Ah, La Trobe: you’ve done it again!

Your University is a leader in autism research and thanks to our pioneering staff at the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, Victorian maternal and child health (MCH) nurses are about to receive specialist training to detect the early signs of autism in young kids.

This life-changing program will teach almost 1,500 MCH nurses and students how to confidently identify the early signs of social communication delay in children during their routine 12, 18 and 24 month Key Age and Stages health checks.

Five-hour face-to-face training sessions, led by La Trobe’s very own Dr Josephine Barbaro, started happening across the state last month.

Dr Barbaro said the training, which includes online modules, will ensure more children with autism are identified and diagnosed earlier, allowing for improved long-term outcomes.

“We know that 82 per cent of children who show early behavioural signs of autism at their routine health checks are on the autism spectrum,” Dr Barbaro says.

“Despite this, the average age for diagnosis in Victoria is four.”

PHOTO: (left to right) La Trobe Senior Research Fellow Dr Jospehine Barbaro, Maternal and Child Health Nurse & Coordinater of the MCH program at La Trobe, Brii and Harvey

Dr Barbaro says earlier identification and diagnosis enables those with autism to receive supports and services in the early and most important years of a child’s life.

“The average age for diagnosis, using our tool – Monitoring of Social Attention, Interaction and Communication (MoSAIC) – is 18 months,” Dr Barbaro says.

“We know that 50 per cent of parents voice concerns before 12 months, so our training is closing the gap between parents’ first concerns and a definitive diagnosis.

“We’re also empowering nurses to not only spot the early signs of possible autism in infants and toddlers, but to jointly discuss these signs with parents and provide referral pathways with empathy and support.”

MCH nurses will learn to apply the MoSAIC tool – previously known as SACS – in their interactions with clients, through the La Trobe-led training.

The tool, developed over 15 years by Dr Barbaro, is used to identify a set of behaviours that are characteristic of children on the spectrum, including:

  • gestures, like waving and pointing at objects
  • response to name being called
  • eye contact
  • imitation or copying others’ activities
  • sharing interest with others
  • pretend play