Treating Autism, the Natural Way
With the prevalence of diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder continually growing and 50 percent of those diagnoses happening by age 4 in Wisconsin1, increased treatment options and early intervention is a necessity. Having a space on campus where treatment could be provided was crucial to Molly Murphy, lead supervisor and program director for the Waisman Autism Treatment Programs.
“There was a real interest in kind of creating a safety net or catching some of those families who are coming to the clinics for diagnostics, and providing some direct service to them,” says Murphy.
She felt it was important to give families with young children more of a typical early childhood experience, so she sought to treat kids in a naturalistic setting rather than a clinic setting. She found the ideal partner in Joan Ershler, director at Waisman Early Childhood Program.
Starting Together piloted in April 2016, serving ten families with children between ages two to five. It is an early behavioral treatment for autism based on applied behavior analysis and a research-based model that came out of UC-Davis called the Early Start Denver Model, “which has shown some really nice progress for kids in a more naturalistic approach to autism treatment,” says Murphy.
For three hours, each day, she and her staff take the components of a high quality early childhood experience and enhance it with intense, one-to-one teaching based on each child’s individualized treatment plan, incorporating support in communication, social interaction, play skills—wherever they need a boost. The other three hours are spent on typical early childhood routines like meal time and large motor time. Murphy calls it “enhanced preschool.”
Starting Together converted a conference room in the WECP building into their main classroom. They also use one other room at WECP for individual play space, and have access to their library, gym, outdoor play areas and a small kitchen area.
Utilizing these common areas has the added benefit of allowing for some natural crossover between the children in both programs, too. Another crossover is the “Good Neighbors” program—WECP kids come in at the end of their rest time to be play partners to the Starting Together kids.
The space at WECP has been “exactly what we needed,” says Murphy, who has big plans for the future of autism treatment programs’ collaboration with campus child care and believes in the potential to create support programs within all five child care centers affiliated with the UW.
“There’s this opportunity to embed full day care for families so that there are fewer transitions,” says Murphy. “That they could be receiving an intensity of treatment in the context of a child care program, I think that would be amazing support for families.”
Murphy has had a few families already ask about wraparound care, and hopes to make it a possibility in the future. This past summer, two children who attended WECP in the mornings came to Starting Together for treatment in the afternoons. Having more opportunities for interaction in the WECP is also extremely beneficial for the older children with autism who will be moving on to kindergarten in the near future.
With regard to the future of Starting Together, Murphy is encouraged for the growth of the program and collaboration with WECP.
“Kids are playing and talking and happy,” says Murphy. “I think being happy is the first step to being able to learn. Having this connection to being in WECP where we have a space that’s so attractive to kids, there’s toys and places to climb and places to run and all the things that every kid wants to do!”
1 “A Snapshot of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Wisconsin,” CDC