ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 5, Winter 2012

Language barrier


Unable to communicate effectively, children with autism often live in their own world, with unusual or obsessive behaviour baffling parents. Caitlin Ganter spoke with Professor Deb Keen, who has developed methods to help parents 

When a perfectly healthy child starts exhibiting some very strange behaviour, parents start to worry. When they are diagnosed with autism, parents can be devastated.

But help is at hand, with ACU’s Professor Deb Keen recently publishing a book to help parents cope with the diagnosis of an autistic child, and give them some clarity around treatment options.

The book – Working with Parents of a Newly Diagnosed Child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Guide for Professionals – is the result of a seven-year joint study looking at parent-focused interventions for children with autism, one of the most comprehensive ever done.

Professor Keen and Professor Sylvia Rodger from the University of Queensland worked with more than 50 families throughout their research.

“We began working with these families shortly after diagnosis,” said Professor Keen. “This is a very stressful time for families as parents immediately start learning how critical it is their child gets early intervention, but professional programs are often limited with very long waiting lists.”

Autism is a spectrum of closely related disorders with shared core symptoms, appearing in infancy and early childhood. It causes delays in many basic areas of development such as learning to talk, play, and interaction.

The book gives information on diagnostic criteria of autism, key characteristics, aetiology, prevalence, prognosis, and explains how to pass on accurate and meaningful information to families, and how to build effective family-professional partnerships.

It also provides strategies for helping families understand intervention options and make informed choices, set realistic goals, develop effective parenting strategies that build upon the strengths and capacities of the child, and strengthen family support networks.

“Autistic children have communication and socialisation impairments, as well as restrictive and repetitive behaviours and interests,” said Professor Keen. “These issues can create a lot of difficulties in the family when the child tries to communicate needs and wants – their behaviour may seem very unusual or disruptive, but it is often them trying to communicate.

“This book offers a different approach than many of the training programs for parents, which focus on giving the parents skills to provide intensive intervention for their child. The book focuses on the parent being a parent, but with specific parenting strategies to help their child with autism.

“It tries to influence the way professionals work with families, and encourages them to take a very family-centred approach, using effective methods to teach parents skills and strategies to help them understand and interpret their child’s behaviour and facilitate the child’s communication in the home.”

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