A new approach to helping parents with autistic children

June 21, 2017 Providence Health Team

Autism impairs a person’s ability to communicate and interact smoothly with others, and a child’s autism impacts every member of the family. Most parents bear a great deal of stress as they juggle therapy schedules with work and family obligations, battle feelings of social isolation and frustration, and shoulder the financial burden of treatments that aren’t always covered by insurance.

Here are some hard facts about Autism:

  • Boys are more than four times more likely to have autism than girls
  • 40% of children with autism do not speak
  • As a spectrum disorder, no two people have the exact same symptoms
  • It is the fastest growing developmental disorder, yet the most underfunded

While autism is a national problem and affects all races, regions and socio-economic classes equally, Washington’s autism rate is relatively high: About one in 62 children is diagnosed with autism in, compared to one in 68 nationwide. Historically, the local need for care and treatment has outpaced availability of services in our community.

Thanks to the support of generous donors, the Providence Autism Center opened in 2014. More than $2,000,000 was raised to build, equip and run the Center. Families benefited from improved access to autism therapies and shorter waiting times for diagnosis and treatment.

About the program

Erin Olson, PhD, is a licensed psychologist at Providence Autism Center. The center offers a comprehensive treatment program focused on teaching foundational skills needed for effective communication, adaptive skills and positive behavior management, which help children transition into school.

Children attend 12 hours of therapy per week for 12 weeks, and parents also must commit to five hours of training and education per week for the duration of the program.

Providence Autism center

While autism is a national problem and affects all races, regions and socio-economic classes equally, Washington’s autism rate is relatively high: About one in 62 children is diagnosed with autism in, compared to one in 68 nationwide.

The parent training program employs a two-pronged approach - individual consultation and group-based parent trainings. Together, this approach helps participants develop individual skills and build relationships with other families. Secondly, the classroom component provides parents instructor-led, hands-on practice.

“Parents get to experience first-hand working with their own child and others, as they’ll continue to do throughout their child’s life,” Dr. Olson says. “We offer coaching to manage social interactions and behavior so parents have the feedback they need to become confident in their ability. It’s empowering for parents, and it’s gratifying to watch as they grow and learn.”

While the program offers a holistic approach to training parents, the deep focus on communication therapy is what makes it unique. “Our team includes a full-time speech language therapist, which the state does not require. We believe having this level of expertise is critical to the children’s success, and so we made it a priority,” says Dr. Olson. The staff also includes a certified behavior analyst. The team works regularly with educators and therapists in their clients’ schools, helping the children extend their success from the center into the school setting.

Dr. Olson says the team has much success to report from its first two and a half years. “We’re very pleased and proud of our attendees’ improved developmental, social, communication and relationship skills,” she says. “The gains these children and families make, even in the short time we have them with us, is amazing.”

Advancing knowledge

Dr. Olson stresses the center’s reliance on evidence-based approaches and is committed to sharing data to help others working with families. She and colleague Dr. Sarah Dababnah, from the University of Maryland, recently completed a pilot study examining the Autism Center’s parent teaching curriculum.

The study, titled “Pilot Trial of Adapted Incredible Years for Parents of Children with Autism,” examined pre- and post-program data from Providence and Onslow County Partnership for Children in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Among the study’s findings: Parents who completed the curriculum reported feeling less stress, experiencing decreased psychological distress, and feeling that their parenting competence had improved.

“The data backed up our belief that parents who complete this program come out feeling empowered and better prepared to advocate for their children,” Dr. Olson says. “So much of our success is a result of the parents’ having confidence, tools and resources to help their children make their way in the world.”

Autism is a very difficult disorder for both children and parents. The feeling of not being able to connect to a child is distressing for the parents, and the inability for the child to relate to other kids is isolating. While there is no cure for autism, programs like the Providence Autism Center are helping parents and children develop the skills and toolsets to enhance their lives and their relationships.

We are committed to continually raising awareness of this disorder, and one way is telling stories about your or a loved one’s experience with autism. If you have a story to share, leave us a comment below.

Learn more about the Providence Autism Center »

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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