The head of Edmonton’s largest service organization for children with autism says there’s a backlog of kids who need to be assessed for developmental disorders after the past two pandemic years.
Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton (CASE) executive director Terri Duncan said typical avenues for screening and referral were almost non-existent for long stretches of Alberta’s battle with COVID-19. Her organization is planning to use a grant of nearly $30,000 from Autism Speaks Canada to help 100 families get evaluations and supports.
Children up to three years old are eligible for assessment.
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“We do believe there are quite a number of kids that have been just lost in the shuffle, lost in the pandemic,” Duncan said Friday.
“We don’t want those kids to continue to go unnoticed, go underserved.”
Not only have sweeping public-health measures kept families at home without their normal community connections, but speech pathologists who do evaluations for autism spectrum disorder were sometimes redeployed to help with COVID-19 testing and other pandemic work.
“Families, for the last couple of years, really haven’t had access to professionals who can do developmental screening and get kids referred on the services that they need,” Duncan explained.
Families with children born just before or during the arrival of COVID in Alberta who might be worried about their child’s development and communication may not have immediate access to the right supports.
Duncan, who is also a speech-language pathologist, said there are several red flags that should prompt parents to seek an autism assessment. By the age of two, you’d typically expect a child to say around 50 words and be able to string two or three words into sentences. If they’ve turned two and they still aren’t saying any words, they should be seen.
There can be signs to watch out for even earlier, too. Children can typically communicate non-verbally with gestures like waving and pointing by around the age of one year, and Duncan said it’s also worth noting if the child doesn’t respond to their name when they’re called or if they seem more interested in objects than people — they’d rather examine parts of a toy than look at someone’s face.
“If we do see enough red flags, we need to get them into some services and interventions,” Duncan said.
Sometimes kids are just “late talkers” and their communication abilities will catch up on their own, but speech pathologists can tell whether that’s the case, or if the child might be showing early signs of autism. Getting services to help them learn to cope and communicate as early in their life as possible can be crucial.
“When you are diagnosing kids early, you can actually change the trajectory of autism so as the kids age, they’ve got a solid foundation of communication, and that improves their quality of life,” Duncan said.
“We’re not looking to ‘fix’ autism or make it go away.”
Duncan said the CASE assessments will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Families who want to get their child seen can find contact information for the organization at childrensautism.ca.