Early intervention in mainstream preschools helps toddlers with autism learn the same important life skills as they do in specialised settings, according to a world-first Australian study.
A team of researchers from La Trobe University, the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre and the Community Children's Centre examined 44 children with autism aged between 15-months-old and 32-months-old, over a period of three years. They were put in either classrooms that included only other children with autism or in classrooms with typically developing peers.
Using the same type of intervention method for all children – the Group Early Start Denver Model (developed at La Trobe) – toddlers with autism showed improvements in their vocal skills, social interaction skills, imitation, verbal cognition and adaptive behaviours, irrespective of their learning environment.
La Trobe researcher Dr Kristelle Hudry said for parents of young children it was often challenging to get an autism diagnosis.
"This process can take months or years – and many appointments with various professionals – and can be highly stressful for parents," Dr Hudry said.
"And once parents do get confirmation that their child has autism, the issues of what early intervention to do, where to access it, and how to afford it can mean further stress."
The latest research showed that young children with autism could benefit from attending mainstream early education facilities.
"We found that the overall quality of the learning and teaching environment in the mainstream playrooms was exceptionally high and graded equal when compared to the specialised playrooms," she said.
"This means the extra training and added requirements involved in including children with autism into mainstream classrooms didn't detract from student development or reduce the amount of attention staff gave to typically developing children."
However, more research was needed.
"While our research showed the feasibility of implementing early intervention in mainstream settings – without compromising the quality of the teaching and learning environment or the children's own outcomes – future research is needed with a larger sample," she said.
"Within any setting, there will be some children who make faster progress than others and we currently have little knowledge to help us 'forecast' which children may respond better or more slowly to different interventions."
Melbourne mum Jay's son Aaron is three-years-old and has autism.
"He avoids eye contact and has trouble following instructions, he likes to control situations (potentially to help reduce his anxiety), has some behavioural issues and still has trouble responding to his name," Jay said.
"He needed to be taught gestures such as waving, pointing etc and we still have a few more of these to teach.
"He is also clever, very articulate, he likes telling jokes, he likes swimming, listening to stories, planes, trains and Ninja Turtles and his interest in different types of play has grown over time with early intervention.
"We are really proud of how far he has come and the amazing little boy he is."
Her son participated in the study because they were keen for him to learn from his peers and for his peers to learn from him.
"I was worried and like any educational experience there were ups-and-downs involved," she said.
"He learned so much from his peers and from the program.
"He learned to talk (and talk a lot), he learned how to be part of a group and he learned many of the precursor skills you need to be able to take turns or share."
Jay said she would be keeping her son in the mainstream schooling system.
"I think it is fundamental that children with autism attend mainstream schools, and my child will definitely be going to a mainstream school," she said.
"Children with ASD are part of the community just like any other child and therefore should be included with their peers regardless of their developmental differences.
"That said, to include children with ASD in a productive way teachers need training; schools need qualified specialist staff to consult regularly over behavioural, sensory and learning issues; a child with ASD needs to have their additional needs considered and met; and parents need to feel engaged."