Social ABCs program can be transformative for non-verbal toddlers with autism or yet-to-be diagnosed

March 30, 2017

Alexandra Foster sits alongside her son blowing bubbles, watching them drift across his bedroom. “Bubble!” enthuses three-year-old Hayden, making the sound of an ‘L’ for the first time in his life.

“Just hearing him say that word was such a happy moment for me,” says Foster. Last year, Hayden was diagnosed with autism. Up until then, he had been effectively non-verbal, meaning the few words he could say, Hayden used out of context.   

Foster attributes this turnaround to their joint participation in the Social ABC’s program, a new clinical initiative supported by Kids Brain Health. The pair were referred nearly nine months after Hayden’s diagnosis to this unique Holland Bloorview program that targets children three and under with diagnosed, or suspected autism.

“The program is just fabulous,” says Ms. Foster, who has 3 weeks remaining in the 12-week program. “Hayden has made leaps and bounds since starting it.”

The Social ABC’s is a parent-delivered program with guidance provided by a trained parent coach. The program focuses on building positive connections between parents and their children, and encourages development of communication skills through interaction in everyday activities.

Research has shown that early intervention can effectively support development in young children with autism, but wait times for access to diagnostic assessments and treatment can be two- to four years in Ontario.

“Even when parents are very vigilant, their child might not get assessed until they are three or four years old,” says Dr. Jessica Brian, co-developer of the Social ABC’s program. “We know that with ASD earlier is better, so this was the context in which we developed this toddler intervention.”

The program started as a pilot research study in 2007, and was later tested via a randomized control trial. Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services selected the Social ABC’s as one of four programs to fund as part of their initiative to make more resources available to babies and toddlers showing signs of ASD.

The Social ABC’s team was partnered with Hamilton Health Services and officially became a clinical service available to the public in December 2016. Ministry funding lasts for three years after which time the government will assess the program to determine whether it’s effective and feasible as part of the provincial strategy addressing autism.

Currently, the program is only available through McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, but Dr. Brian is hopeful that it will eventually be implemented in more locations.

“Every community has different resources, but I think this program would be transferrable to any community,” says Dr. Brian. “Parent-mediated interventions are less resource-intensive and therefore less costly, and it provides an opportunity to work with kids who don’t have a formal diagnosis but it’s suspected they will go on and develop ASD.”

As the Social ABC’s expands, plans are developing to find ways of connecting more communities with the program, including First Nations. Other priorities include putting the finishing touches on the parent coaching manual and doing more research to ensure the program is as effective as possible.

Despite only taking 12 weeks to complete, the program is designed to provide parents with tools they can continue to use even after accessing other behavioural interventions and language programs. 

“We don’t think about this as a therapy that you need to add to your daily tasks,” says Dr. Brian. “Instead, we think of it as learning ways to enhance social communication when you’re interacting with your child.”

Once the Foster’s complete the Social ABC’s in a few weeks, Hayden will go back to seeing his speech pathologist while he remains on the waitlist for IBI. Ms. Foster says she uses the tools she’s learned from the program on a daily basis. 

“When you have a child with ASD you always feel like you’re trying to crunch them into this mold they don’t fit, but this program did the opposite,” said Ms. Foster. “My parent coach took the time to know and understand Hayden, and she has made me feel so much better about my abilities as the mom of a child with ASD.”