The So­cial ABCs

Pro­gram aims to give autis­tic chil­dren their voice

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - HEALTH - BY SH­ERYL UBELACKER

Alex Munro and his mom Jenn Potenza swoosh down a slide side-by-side, the six-yearold grin­ning at her with de­light and chat­ter­ing non-stop as the pair dash from one part of the brightly coloured play­ground to the next.

This par­ent-child in­ter­ac­tion may not seem like any­thing out of the or­di­nary — but for Potenza, every smile and every word from her son is a trea­sured gift.

Alex has autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD) and at age three, he didn’t speak and rarely made di­rect eye con­tact with his par­ents, com­mon symp­toms of the neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion that af­fects an es­ti­mated one in every 68 chil­dren.

“They told me in the be­gin­ning that he may never learn to talk, he may never be able to go to a reg­u­lar class­room,” Potenza re­calls.

But thanks to an in­no­va­tive pro­gram be­ing stud­ied at Hol­land Bloorview Kids Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Hos­pi­tal in Toronto, Alex has found his voice.

Known as the So­cial ABCs, the pro­gram teaches par­ents strate­gies to help tod­dlers with ASD to talk or vo­cal­ize in more mean­ing­ful ways and to smile more with their care­givers.

The 12-week in­ter­ven­tion, de­vel­oped by clin­i­cal re­searchers at Hol­land Bloorview and IWK Health Cen­tre in Hal­i­fax, uses ob­jects that grab a child’s at­ten­tion and mo­ti­vates them to ver­bally in­ter­act with their par­ents.

“I re­mem­ber specif­i­cally Alex was mo­ti­vated by food and snacks like ice cream and cook­ies,” says Kate Bernardi, a re­search co-or­di­na­tor at Hol­land Bloorview’s autism re­search cen­tre and a par­ent coach for the So­cial ABCs pro­gram.

“And so we just started with that at first and we would give Jenn the cook­ies and let Alex see them and wait for a sig­nal from him that he wanted one,” she says.

“It was mostly get­ting some­thing he re­ally, re­ally wanted,” Potenza adds, “like a Pop­si­cle or juice or a cookie, and show­ing him what the ex­pec­ta­tion was and then just wait­ing un­til we got ei­ther that eye con­tact or he had said the words that we were look­ing for be­fore he got the re­ward.”

Potenza will never for­get the mo­ment Alex fi­nally spoke.

“Hear­ing his voice for the first time was ab­so­lutely phe­nom­e­nal .... You have this lit­tle per­son you love so much and you don’t get the op­por­tu­nity to re­ally know what they’re think­ing or they can’t tell you any­thing or ex­press their needs or their wants,” she says, her eyes tear­ing up at the mem­ory.

“When they have no lan­guage and you hear it for the first time — whether it be for a cookie or a glass of juice — it doesn’t mat­ter what it is. Just to hear them talk to you about some­thing is prob­a­bly the best feel­ing in the world.”

Potenza and Alex, who en­ters Grade 2 in Septem­ber, were part of a re­cently pub­lished study at Hol­land Bloorview and the IWK Health Cen­tre that en­rolled 62 chil­dren with ASD, aged 12 to 30 months, and their pri­mary care­givers.

Half the fam­i­lies were ran­domly as­signed to im­me­di­ately re­ceive the So­cial ABCs, while the other half waited six months to be­gin the pro­gram.

“What we found was that for the ba­bies and fam­i­lies who re­ceived the So­cial ABCs ini­tially, if you fol­lowed the devel­op­ment over that first six-month pe­riod, we saw sig­nif­i­cant gains in the amount of time the ba­bies spent look­ing at their pri­mary

care­giver ... and an in­creased amount of time that the par­ents and ba­bies were smil­ing to­gether,” ex­plains psy­chol­o­gist Dr. Jes­sica Brian, co-lead of Hol­land Bloorview’s autism re­search cen­tre.

Re­searchers also saw in­creased ver­bal re­sponses to parental prompts and gains in their func­tional lan­guage, as well as how of­ten they ini­ti­ated a ver­bal con­nec­tion on their own, says Brian, who code­vel­oped the pro­gram with Dr. Su­san Bryson, an autism re­searcher at Dal­housie Univer­sity in Hal­i­fax.

“So the ba­bies were ap­proach­ing their par­ents more and ini­ti­at­ing so­cial con­tact. We’re very ex­cited about the find­ing of ini­ti­at­ing be­cause it’s not some­thing we taught specif­i­cally and it’s some­thing we know is of­ten very im­paired in chil­dren with autism spec­trum dis­or­der.”

How­ever, ba­bies and tod­dlers in the de­layed-pro­gram group made min­i­mal progress, she says.

The re­searchers will soon be­gin a fol­lowup study — tak­ing place in Toronto, Hal­i­fax and Ed­mon­ton — that will give care­givers train­ing in how to bet­ter at­tract the at­ten­tion of ba­bies and tod­dlers with ASD or sus­pected ASD be­fore start­ing the stan­dard com­po­nents of the pro­gram.

MARK BLINCH/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Alex Munro, 6, di­ag­nosed with autism spec­trum dis­or­der, plays at a play­ground with his mother Jenn Potenza at the Hol­land Bloorview Kids Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Hos­pi­tal in Toronto ear­lier this month.

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