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A new parent-training program helps parents communicate with their autistic children

Arbitrary, perhaps, but since the 1970s April has been recognized as National Autism Awareness Month. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are on the rise and now affect about one in 110 children in the United States.

Those raw numbers barely begin to reflect the increasing impact that autism is having on an American society whose social safety net is unraveling. The more kids being diagnosed autistic, the more families there are incurring medical costs in the attempt to normalize their situations.

An article published by the Harvard School of Public Health placed the direct medical cost of treating someone with autism, which typically includes physician and outpatient services, behavioral therapies and more, at around $29,000 per person per year -- barely less than the median annual household income in Humboldt County.

But while ASD diagnoses have become more prevalent, human understanding of how best -- and most cost efficiently -- to help those affected is still being refined. Early detection for children is important so that individualized recommendations can be made by trained professionals during formative years. But another key way for parents to help their autistic children is to be trained themselves.

For about a month now, Heather Pendery and her husband, David Armstrong, along with five other families, have been attending free parent-training sessions at the Humboldt County Office of Education. Pendery and Armstrong are parents to Emmitt, a 2- (almost 3-) year-old boy with autism. The Eureka couple and their classmates are learning how to better understand autism and better relate to their kids.

The program's active 45-minute sessions, designed for parents of children from 18 months to 5 years old, combine group dynamics with individual training between parents, their kids, and sometimes other family members. It's beneficial to children like Emmitt, but the program also gives parents like Pendery and Armstrong the opportunity to network with other parents who've experienced similar victories and struggles.

Emmitt -- while, of course, uniquely adorable -- belongs to an increasingly common demographic. Locally, Humboldt County Office of Education Pre-K Education Program Manager Oveida Elliott and her associates provide some sort of individualized care -- in class, at home and elsewhere -- for nearly 200 special needs children in the county, around 60 of whom have autism.

Working directly with parents of autistic children, giving them a better understanding of their kids, has multiple benefits, according to program organizers. With drastic state and local budget cuts, the sustainability of programs like this one is in doubt. By empowering parents, government agencies can reduce long-term costs while improving quality of care, the organizers explained.

"Research shows that 20 to 25 hours [spent] training a parent is equal to about 225 hours of a clinical professional working with a child," said Genevive Macias, a curriculum specialist with the county office of education. "Parent training is not a replacement to clinical intervention but part of a comprehensive and best-practice approach."

A major component of the parent training sessions is playtime coaching, which aims to recreate each child's home environment. "It allows the child to generalize the skills that they're supposed to be learning because it's happening in the context of their normal day," explained behavioral analyst Shelby Peterson. "It's not just sitting in a therapy room with a specialist. They're working on something with their family."

Such coaching allows parents the opportunity to receive real-time tips to connect. One thing Pendery has learned is the importance of language. She's been challenged by the tips she's received, especially about the way she communicates verbally with Emmitt.

"It's like you have to totally retrain the way you think you're supposed to talk to your child," she said. For example, she's learned that using statements during playtime -- "Emmitt is pushing the truck" -- provides a better model for speech than posing questions -- "Is Emmitt pushing the truck?" -- which was her default method of communicating with Emmitt before the training sessions. Pendery has also learned that, though the tendency of autistic children is to want to turn away from others, it's better to be face to face. "Now I know you want them to see your mouth move, and I feel like I'm able to play with him better."

If you'd like to learn more about referrals for the parent training sessions or other services offered locally, call Oveida Elliott at 445-6006 and/or the Redwood Coast Regional Center at 445-0893.  

 

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