Early intervention helping children with autism and their families in rural Tasmania

  • Early intervention helping children with autism and their families in rural Tasmania

Amanda and Josh Gunders with their son Roy who attends Blue School

Colleen Cheek, Miranda Stephens, Penny Allen and Kathryn Fordyce
University of Tasmania, North West Tasmania ASELCC

A service that combines child care with early intervention is seeing big improvements in children with autism living in North West Tasmania.

The North West Tasmania Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre, or ‘Blue School’ as named by the children that attend, after the colour of the building, offers early intervention to children with autism symptoms attending long day care centres. It operates from the regional ‘hub’ of Burnie, with ‘spokes’ in other rural towns. Children in the outlying locations receive intervention from the educators at their local mainstream childcare centres, supported by Blue School specialist staff. 

In 2014 the University of Tasmania Rural Clinical School (RCS) formed a research collaboration with Blue School to analyse the children’s clinical assessment data. Outcomes from 93 children were assessed. Seventeen per cent of the children came from an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander background, and over one third were from families with more than one child with a disability. The study found that children made improvements in a number of the assessed outcome measures, and the results were similar for children attending the hub and those attending the spokes. Watch the ABC news story (broadcast 30/5/2016).

In collaboration with a research team from the University of Adelaide and Flinders University, the RCS conducted a pilot study of social inclusion and quality of life for parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) attending Blue School and a similar service in South Australia.

Parents reported improvements in their quality of life. Positive outcomes included: the opportunity to participate in paid employment; gaining respite; and increased opportunities to engage with social events in their communities. In addition, their confidence in parenting and knowledge about supporting their child was enhanced.

‘Before I first went in to see them I was in tears every day and at a complete loss as to what to do. All I could do was get through each day, if I was lucky. And now I am able to get through, think about tomorrow, the next day, the day after that and a bit further, and very rarely does the day end in tears for everyone anymore (laughs). I have a better feeling of self-worth.” (Parent)

Buoyed by these results Blue School has increased its reach to other rural towns in the area. This year Blue School reached its child capacity with 55 children in the region, and recently opened a ‘mini-hub’ in conjunction with local education and care provider Devonport Child Care Centres in the regional city of Devonport.

Blue School works with the mainstream childcare centres to help them to be ready to offer early intervention for children. In 2016 the RCS research group teamed with other University of Tasmania researchers who, with input from education and care providers, will develop a readiness tool’ that can be used by childcare centres to assist in developing capacity.

The service is currently funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services and will transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme in 2018. 

Colleen Cheek’s presentation on the autism early intervention program was judged the most engaging Lightning Talk presentation at the recent 5th Rural and Remote Health Scientific Symposium.


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