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Seeing Things Differently: Where To Turn For Help Before And After Autism Diagnosis?

Lisa Wilson (top right) with her family in Hartford, Connecticut. Her son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio
Lisa Wilson (top right) with her family in Hartford, Connecticut. Her son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Parent Lisa Wilson wasn’t sure if her son was developing the skills he should for his age. “He wasn't talking as a typical two-year-old would've been talking,” she said.

But he was her first child, so she wasn’t sure.

In every city and town in Connecticut there’s a program available to families who are concerned that a child's development may not be on track. After talking to a family member, Wilson reached out to the statewide early intervention program called “Birth To Three.”

A therapist came to Wilson’s home.

“They’re non-judgmental,” she said. “They are there actually to help you understand what's going on with your child, what services that they think that your child would need at the time.”

Her son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

Birth to age three is a critical period of brain development. Research tells us that during this time, the brain grows exponentially and has a lot of plasticity. Experiences that children have at this time can shape and change how their brain functions.

The research is clear. Intervening before the age of three can change the course of a child’s development.

Behavior analyst Maris Pelkey said one goal of Birth To Three intervention is to help parents recognize that they are their child's first teacher, “and we are there to support the family. I always hope that I can help the family become an advocate for their child, to get the best services possible throughout their life.”

Occupational therapist Kate Giampetruzzi goes into homes or other settings, learns about a child’s daily routines and then coaches parents on how to help their child develop new skills. This could include trying new foods or using utensils to eat. And by helping children to participate in everyday routines, the child can stay an active part of family life.

Giampetruzzi worked with one child who began withdrawing from her family.

“The child had lost a lot of language, had lost some social skills, so was no longer able to interact with their siblings,” she said. “So when we came into the home, we really focused on that family priority of getting back to talking with the brother, talking with the sister, showing an interest in play.”

And part of what Birth To Three does is to help parents take the long view, help them learn how to work through the angst of the moment as they watch their child struggle to learn these new skills, according to behavior analyst Diane Joozbah.

She emphasized Birth To Three’s role in helping parents cope. She works with them on “acceptance; that they can accept their child’s limitations and celebrate their successes.”

Joozbah said she works with the children so they can, to the best of their abilities, lead productive lives, to “be independent in skills that we take for granted, such as dressing, feeding, communicating wants and needs.”

Still, it's often tough for parent to make that first call.

“It says Birth To Three,” said parent Lisa Wilson. “So if your child falls within that range, why not use the resource if it’s there for you?”

There are three different types of Birth To Three programs in Connecticut: general, autism specialty, and hearing specialty. The professionals in these programs say the free evaluation is helpful even for those kids who don’t end up qualifying for services.

And for those who do, parent learn how to integrate therapeutic techniques into everyday life.

The program also transition children into their school district’s preschool program. This handoff helps keep these children on their journey of progress.

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