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Therapy program helps parents with autistic children

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An innovative outreach program is helping parents of children with autism to better connect with their kids.

Jackie Parsons, Nadiene Wainwright, Tracey Drexler, and Deborah Dykstra each have children who have been diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder that affects the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills.

All four women are members of Manitoba Families for Floortime, and receive therapy for their children from the autism outreach program run by Manitoba Family Services.

Developmental Individual Relationship, or DIR  Floortime, is a type of therapy in which parents undertake a developmental role as their child’s play partner.

The autism outreach program has been offering services to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and their families since 1992.  Starting in 2009 the program began to employ Floortime as one of its tools for coaching parents to support their child’s development.

Dykstra, whose children Abigail, 6, and Matthias, 4, were diagnosed with autism, said one of the keys to Floortime is to watch what the child is already interested in and determine a way to participate in the activity.

Parsons, who learned two years ago that her twins Addison and Scott have autism, said Floortime allows her family to interact the way she had always hoped it would.

"They seek us out as play partners now. They want us to be a part of the excitement that they’re experiencing, and before we really never had that," said Parsons, a North Kildonan resident.

"We’re not out of the woods yet but we’re really seeing the road from where we’re standing."

A spokesperson for the Manitoba government said the approach is successful because it helps parents to better understand behaviour that can sometimes seem puzzling.

The spokesperson said it also helps parents feel more confident in their own ability to affect the course of their child’s development at an early age, builds upon the child’s existing strengths, interests and motivations, and makes interactions fun and rewarding for both the parents and the child.

"The DIR Floortime model emphasizes the critical role of parents and other family members because of the importance of their emotional relationships with the child," the spokesperson said.

While other therapies are offered in the province such as Applied Behaviour Analysis through St. Vital-based St. Amant Centre, members of MFFF feel Floortime isn’t as widely known.

"We need to get the word out because it really isn’t publicized as much as it needs to be," Parsons said.

Dykstra said her daughter took part in ABA for three years before she made the decision to try Floortime.

"ABA is definitely very useful for what it does, it teaches kids skills basically," the Transcona resident said.

"What it doesn’t address as much is the whole piece about developing relationships, play, and creative thinking."

Dykstra said she has noticed significant changes in both her children since they started to participate in Floortime.

"All this foundational play that every child needs in order to learn that being with people is fun, is now happening," she said

Sandra McKay, executive director of the Autism Society of Manitoba, said the organization doesn’t endorse any one form of therapy. However, she said it is important to find something that will work well for each child.

"Early diagnosis is crucial because the sooner you find out that your child needs extra support the better it is for everyone," McKay said. "As long as somebody is working with the child and teaching mom and dad or the caregiver."

Drexler, whose five-year-old son Braydon was diagnosed last fall, said taking part in the program has been a saving grace for herself and her son.

"Before we started the program in January he really wasn’t talking too much, or engaging his sister," said Drexler, who lives in Westwood.

"When we started it was hard, but he’s made leaps and bounds. He’ll initiate a conversation and play with other kids now."

Wainwright, whose three and a half year old son Lincoln was diagnosed with autism just over a year ago, said choosing therapy for your child comes down to a parents comfort level.

"Lots of those feelings are just in your gut. For me I want Lincoln to have social skills and use his brain and think for himself," the Crestview resident said.

"I need to teach him how to play and those type of skills so he can have friends and relationships. Obviously that’s the stuff that gets us jobs."

Parsons said MFFF members are hoping to connect with other parents who have gone through autism outreach with their children.

"As we’re going through this, we’re going in to uncharted territory too as our kids get older," she said.

"What does that look like for other families? They can share their experience with us too."

Parsons said she wouldn’t do anything differently.

"If somebody said to me, ‘Knowing what you know now would you do anything different?’ I would not do anything different. This is the path I would take again in a heartbeat," she said.

For more information on MFFF visit
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