Researchers have found the country’s only regional Autism Specific Early Learning and Care Centre (ASELCC), located on Tasmania’s North-West, is improving outcomes for children with autism.
The research was carried out by the University of Tasmania Rural Clinical School in partnership with the North-West Tasmania ASELCC, which operates under a hub-and-spokes model to provide early intervention across the dispersed regional population.
The ASELCC provides early intervention and support to children from birth to six years who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or autism-like characteristics, in a long day care setting. The service also works with families and carers to support the needs of the children at home as they access other care and learning opportunities.
The ASELCC hub, known as Blue School, is located in Burnie. There are four spoke centres in Devonport (two), Smithton and King Island, where services are delivered flexibly through selected mainstream childcare centres.
The research focused on identifying the outcomes for children who had attended hub or spoke centres over the 2009 – 2014 period, and analysed the clinical assessments of 98 pre-school aged children who were diagnosed with ASD.
Researchers found that children who had accessed programs and specialised care at Blue School experienced improvements in several assessed outcomes which included behaviour, communication, language development, motor skills and cognitions.
The findings also showed that children attending the spoke centres had similar outcomes.
The results were published in the paper Early intervention for children with autism: An Australian rural hub and spokes model.
Co-author Miranda Stephens, a Clinical Psychology Lecturer at the Rural Clinical School, said the research demonstrated a hub-and-spokes model was effective for the North-West.
“The ASELCC curriculum is designed to support and enhance the abilities of children with ASD to participate in childcare, early education, and interact with other young people. Our findings suggest these centres are meeting this important objective,” Ms Stephens said.
“The evidence indicates the hub-and-spokes model may provide similar outcomes for children at either site, and suggests that non-specialist staff can deliver early intervention in outlying mainstream settings effectively with the right specialist support.”
Kathryn Fordyce, paper co-author and Manager of the North-West Tasmania ASELCC, said the service was particularly important for families in isolated areas.
“For many families in rural towns who have children with ASD, it is not feasible to travel to the ASELCC hub, because of geographical constraints or other commitments,” Ms Fordyce said. “Without access to these specialist services, the children are at risk of missing out during a very crucial time in their development, and this is why spokes centres are particularly important.”
The research began in 2014 to investigate whether the North-West Tasmania ASELCC was having a positive impact on the outcomes of children with ASD and if it provided parents with adequate support.
The Rural Clinical School and North-West Tasmania ASELCC are now working on the next step of the research, the Autism-readiness in mainstream community childcare project which focuses on identifying key criteria for delivering ASD-specific early intervention in more mainstream childcare centres.
“This is a readiness tool which will allow other rural centres to assess whether they could deliver early intervention to children with ASD in their care, but it will also help highlight any areas of the service which need more attention,” Ms Fordyce said. “While there is still a lot of work to be done to enable rollouts to other centres, this is an important next step.”
(Source: University of Tasmania)