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Program sees autistic toddlers thrive in mainstream kinder

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Toddlers with autism can thrive in normal kindergarten environments if provided with the correct scaffolding and La Trobe University’s Group-Early Start Denver Model (G-ESDM) looks to be one intervention that works well.

During research across three centres toddlers with autism showed improvements in their vocal skills, social interaction skills, imitation, verbal cognition and adaptive behaviours, irrespective of their learning environment.

Over a period of three years, 44 children aged between 15 and 32 months were randomly assigned to classrooms that included only children with autism or to classrooms with typically developing peers.

"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," La Trobe researcher Dr Kristelle Hudry 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."

A team of professionals and researchers – the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) and the Community Children's Centre (CCC), both at La Trobe University, and Gowrie Victoria – conducted the research.

CCC Director and Training Coordinator, Kristy Capes said; "We've helped toddlers with autism develop life skills that will help them in future – across both classroom settings. Our early intervention program ensures children aren't just reaching their own developmental goals, but they're learning how to generalise their learning in a group environment.

"Parents have reflected this is translating positively in the real world. Their children can now play in the sandpit or go to a party without feeling overwhelmed."

La Trobe researcher, Dr Cathy Bent, said it is important for children with a disability to have the opportunity to learn with their peers in regular educational settings.

"It can also help prevent discrimination and negative social perception towards people on the spectrum, as it gives children without a disability the chance to become more accepting of diversity from an early age," Bent said.

The positive findings have encouraged the team at La Trobe to further their work in this area.

"We aim to start a new study next year with a particular focus on the training and support we provide educators – which is currently a very resource intensive model," Hudry said.


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