Kiwi nurses being trained to detect autism earlier with 'most effective tool in the world'

Post-natal nurses are now being trained to detect autism in children starting at 11 months, using what Victoria University researcher says is the "most effective tool in the world" - the surveillance screening tool.

(Left to right) Linda Stocker, Plunket nurse, Lisa Vitaliano, Ora Toa nurse, Liku Simi, Ora Toa nurse, Hannah Waddington, researcher at Victoria University of Wellington. Source: 1 NEWS

A specialist nurse was flown in from Australia last week by Autism New Zealand and Plunket in a joint effort with Victoria University to help up-skill nurses to detect the developmental disorder earlier.

Sixty nurses from Plunket and Tamariki Ora all from the lower North Island took part in the course with Australian psychologist Josephine Barbaro.

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The training, the first of its kind in New Zealand, is being hailed as a breakthrough. Source: 1 NEWS

"We have seen amazing results with this tool over in Australia... ...we'd absolutely like to roll it out nationwide in New Zealand," Ms Barbaro says.

"The response from the training was overwhelmingly positive, they were all coming up to me and hugging me at the end.  I think it is really important to empower your health professionals."

Hannah Waddington, a researcher from Victoria University in Wellington told 1 NEWS, because of the positive feedback Australia received from using the approach they wanted to bring it here.

"It’s the most effective tool in the world for being able to identify and not identify autism," Ms Waddington says.

Lisa Vitaliano is a Well Child Tamariki Ora nurse and was at the training day, she says they were taught how to use what's called the surveillance screening tool.

"It works like a check list and helps to identify three key things to determines whether the child is highly likely to have autism.

"It assesses if the children reaches the milestones they're supposed to," Ms Vitaliano says.

Dane Dougan chief executive of Autism New Zealand says this new development in diagnosing autism is "huge".

"This is a part of the process of big systemic change, identification, diagnosis and ongoing support," Mr Dougan says.

"There is still a long way to go, but it is a huge step."

He says if it is diagnosed earlier, children with autism will be able to reach their full potential.

"We are hoping it’ll roll out across the country, but we are in need of funding," Mr Dougan says.

(left to right) Gaylene Chambers, Rikki Chambers, Monique Chambers and Richard Chambers. Source: Gaylene Chambers

Gaylene Chambers has a 12-year-old son with autism.

Rikki Chambers was diagnosed at age 3 which meant he was able to get the support he needed and his family were able to prepare sooner.

"It was in Rikki’s early years of preschool his teachers noticed a few differences between him and the other kids.

"If not discovered then his autism wouldn’t have been picked up until primary school."

She said if it wasn’t for his kindy teachers she would have "brushed it under the carpet".

"Because I was told that it was an early intervention we could get the assistance we needed by CCS disability action, where they brought in a teacher aide, speech and language therapist and occupational therapist. They came to his preschool for two hours a day and he received on on one attention," Ms Chambers says.

She says the fact that post-natal nurses are being trained to detect it earlier is a good thing.

"Having a professional be able to detect it is good, because for some parents it’s not easy to detect."

Ms Waddington from Victoria University says according to New Zealand research parents on average first become concerned their child have autism at 3 and a half years and the average child doesn’t get diagnosed until 6 and a half years.

"If they are diagnosed earlier they are more promising by the time they get to school, have less cognitive difficulties, are in more mainstream classes and there is less need for ongoing support."

Linda Stocker, a Plunket nurse at the training day says, "we are now able to assess the risk, cognitive abilities and give the parents tools."

Parents can now bring their children in as little as 11 months for tests to determine whether that child is likely to have autism.

At the training day Dr Barbaro shared the impacts of early detection in Australia.

She spoke about the impacts of a child being diagnosed at 24 months compared to 3-5 years.

Seventy-seven per cent of children diagnosed early attended a mainstream school compared to 58 per cent diagnosed later.

Sixty per cent of children diagnosed early are receiving ongoing support compared to 90 per cent later.

Plunket National Educator Anne Hodren says there has been a lot of interest outside of Wellington.

"It should be taught to early childhood teachers, social workers who work with children and GPs, I think this is just the beginning," Ms Hodren says.

This method has been rolled out in 10 different other countries including Asia-Pacific, developing countries, Nepal, China, Japan, Singapore and Europe including Poland and Spain.