As a mum to a delightful, very perceptive, high energy and extremely funny 4 1⁄2 year old daughter who is autistic, I am passionate about autistic children having access to opportunities to develop and thrive during their early formative years, when 90% of human brain development happens.
My daughter was diagnosed as autistic when she was 2 1⁄2 years of age. She was non-speaking, had many sensory issues and behaved differently to her peers. Consequently, we commenced early intervention therapy. (Many appreciative thanks to the life-changing NDIS).
My daughter now speaks and, based on a recent assessment, she has communication skills like her peers. We also have a far better understanding of how to manage her sensory issues to minimise her feeling overwhelmed. She is learning how to seek out her tribe of welcoming souls without having to hide or change who she is.
Although eternally grateful for the therapies funded by the NDIS, clinical intervention is not the sole factor responsible for my daughter’s encouraging development to date. The strategies developed within early intervention therapy provide a framework for what to do, but to be effective they need to be implemented day in and day out in a variety of contexts (home, pre-school, playgroups, playgrounds etc).
Pre-school is THE pre-eminent environment for young children to interact with peers and other (trained) adults, thus developing all-important communication and social skills. Let’s provide these vital, frequent opportunities by making pre-school universal for all autistic children.
It is no exaggeration that pre-school is the best early intervention therapy my daughter receives. No other environment comes close to pre-school in terms of providing supervised, peer-to-peer interactions.
For parents and carers of autistic children, pre-school may not necessarily be about returning to work, but about providing a safe, inclusive, peer filled environment for our children to learn skills that do not come naturally to them but which the neurotypical-designed world expects them to have. Pre-school also prepares autistic children for school, an environment which can unfortunately prove to be challenging.
It is not unusual to be on a waitlist for months - years, even - for good therapists. This results in a loss of valuable therapy time that delays development during the formative early years. If there is a consolidated, holistic view of the NDIS Early Intervention Programme and Early Childhood Education, autistic children will experience life-changing benefits. These should be integrated and viewed with a whole-of-child perspective, not work in silos.
Autistic children are not broken and do not need to be fixed. They need to be accepted.
Neurodiverse affirming training should be compulsory for all early childhood educators and all early learning centres should have a compulsory neurodiverse affirming inclusive programme. Let’s help these valuable people in our children’s lives be better informed and prepared. (And pay early educators more! They are worth it!).
The world is designed by and for neurotypical people and there is unfortunately a lifelong penalty for neurodivergent people. We have the opportunity to start at the very beginning to better equip our youngest neurodivergent citizens for the years ahead by providing universal access to early learning, having neurodiverse affirming programmes in early childhood education, and ensuring adequate numbers of allied health professionals who can provide therapy.