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More nurses trained to spot autism in kids

Victorian nurses will monitor babies for early signs of autism during routine health checks under a new training plan.

Minister for Early Childhood Education Jenny Mikakos recently announced the $1.1 million package, which will further deliver specialist training to maternal and child health nurses in Victoria.

The project focuses on building their skills and confidence in identifying early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during routine checks at 12, 18 and 24 months, and supporting parents.

Mikakos said the initiative is about ensuring those living with ASD have the same opportunities as everybody else.

More than a decade of research and evaluation by La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Research Centre (OTARC) went into developing the screening tool at the heart of the training.

Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, director OTARC, said the majority (82 per cent) of babies who show early behavioural signs of autism at the time of the routine checks do have autism.

“We know that children diagnosed at two or younger do considerably better intellectually by school age than those diagnosed at the age of three or later,” Dissanayake said. “Earlier identification and diagnosis enables those with autism to receive intervention in their early and most important years, with massively improved longer term prospects.”

OTARC senior research fellow Dr Josephine Barbaro said the training will give maternal and child health nurses confidence in spotting the early signs of autism in infants and creating referral pathways.

Barbaro added it will also help guide them in raising concerns with parents in an empathetic and supportive way.

“We want to empower the parents as well as the nurses, to prevent the huge gap between parents’ first concerns and a definitive diagnosis, which can often be incredibly frustrating,” she said.

Training has already been rolled out across Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and in many other countries. Almost all (98 per cent) nurses have so far reported confidence in identifying early signs and deciding on referral paths to follow, the research team said.

Dissanayake said the funding will ensure more children with autism are identified and diagnosed earlier – with considerably improved long-term outcomes.

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