Life-changing autism training launched

La Trobe University is rolling out specialist training for all Victorian Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nurses, so they can build their skills and confidence in detecting the early signs of autism in children under three.

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 Dr Josephine Barbaro from La Trobe’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, are being rolled out across Victoria from May to June, supported by a $1.1 million investment from the Victorian Government.

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 said.

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

Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos said: “Every child deserves the best possible chance to live a full, rewarding life and we know the earlier children are identified and referred for assessment for autism, the sooner they can get the specialist support and interventions they need.”

“We know our MCH nurses play an integral role in the early care and development of children. That’s why we are making sure they get the training they need to help identify the early signs of social communication delay and give our children the best possible outcomes.”

Dr Barbaro said 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 said.

“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 from as young as 12 months old, including infrequent or inconsistent use of:

  • 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

MoSAIC is currently the most effective way to identify autism in young children.

Background

Training has already been rolled out across Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and in nine other countries, with over 98 per cent of nurses reporting confidence in identifying early signs and initiating referral pathways.

The Parliamentary Inquiry into services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder in 2017 recommended the Victorian Government train MCH nurses in developmental surveillance techniques designed to identify early signs of autism in children under three, and provide appropriate referrals.

As part of a $61 million suite of inclusive education initiatives announced by the Andrews Labor Government in late 2017, $19 million was invested in early childhood education initiatives, including $1.1 million to train all MCH nurses in the early identification of autism.

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

Media contact: Dragana Mrkaja – 0447 508 171 – d.mrkaja@latrobe.edu.au

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