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Wellington whānau of children aged 12–54 months on the autism spectrum are being encouraged to be part of a New Zealand-first clinical study.

“Most studies using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM) to support children on the spectrum were done overseas and involved several years of therapy for more than 20 hours a week,” says Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington educational psychologist and senior lecturer Dr Hannah Waddington.

“We want to see if only three hours a week of therapy and parent support over a six-month period improves outcomes for children and their whānau,” says Dr Waddington, who is in the University’s School of Education.

The ESDM uses play to build positive relationships and aims to boost child language, social, and cognitive skills. This is the first study of this scale and rigour in New Zealand and its design allows the researchers to determine properly whether it is the therapy itself that is leading to improvements.

“The establishment of the Victoria University of Wellington Autism Clinic in 2018 enables this type of research. The study is in line with our goal of doing high-quality research and ensuring theory is translated into practical help that will work in New Zealand.

“We know that currently families with children on the spectrum are not getting the help they need. They need further support across important areas such as social communication, interaction with peers, and play skills,” says Dr Waddington.

The personal inspiration for Dr Waddington to pursue an academic career studying autism came from her family, some of whom are on the spectrum. Growing up, she saw how little support and advice they received from professionals and resolved to dedicate herself to doing something about this. It is estimated 1 in 59 children will be diagnosed with autism.

“The research begins with us assessing the needs of the child and their whānau, beginning by playing with the child, getting to know them, and choosing priority goals in their development. Then we target each therapy session to these goals,” she says.

This includes activities that integrate skills—such as block play, where the therapist works on copying behaviour with blocks, using words to ask for the blocks, and sharing the blocks.

“With parents, we give them the skills to continue this therapy at home, working with them on a different goal each week,” says Dr Waddington.

The research was awarded $250,000 by the Health Research Council of New Zealand last year, with the study funded to continue over three years. It is also being supported by the Autism New Zealand Autism Resource Centre and Dr Waddington is working with Professor Andrew Whitehouse from the Telethon Kids Institute in Australia to develop the research. The study requires 48 families.

“We want to evaluate whether this is beneficial, and if so, we have evidence this three hours’ therapy is something the Government should fund. We want to train more therapists and make ESDM more widely available across New Zealand.” 

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