Norland, in collaboration with the Transforming Autism Project (TAP), is delighted to announce the launch of First Steps – An Early Autism Family Support Programme.

Funded by the Norland Foundation, First Steps has been developed by Norland researchers using the latest scientific evidence and input from experienced child therapists, autism experts and parents of autistic children. This pioneering programme offers early support to children with and without an autism diagnosis under the age of four, and their families.

Currently, there is limited research about autism in very young children and a lack of appropriate and accessible services to support families. In the UK, the average age of autism diagnosis is four and a half years, even though it may be possible to identify that a child is autistic within their first year. Carers of such children are thus left with little support or guidance from local authorities. First Steps aims to address the gap of services available. A full diagnosis of autism is not required for parents or carers to engage with the First Steps initiative, which has been licensed to TAP for implementation.

a nanny holding a child smiling

With research led by Norland Research Fellow Dr Theodora Papatheodorou, First Steps begins with and then builds upon the child’s potential and the caregiver’s strengths and capacities to nurture a system of foundational support and understanding that is essential to help create a secure and trusting relationship with the autistic child, who remains at the centre of the programme.

“First Steps is informed by the latest scientific evidence about brain development, the reciprocity of sensorimotor and affective experiences, and the impact of parental/caregiver stress levels on the developmental trajectory of autism in very young children”, says Dr Papatheodorou, who worked closely with the research team and an advisory group, comprising of licensed therapists, autism experts and parents, to co-construct the First Steps programme. The programme seeks to blend Norland’s extensive early years expertise with specialised scientific research into autism.”

Guy Shahar, founder and CEO of the Transforming Autism Project commented: “We are really delighted to be able to offer these important new services that address a deep and largely unmet need for practical support to families with very young autistic children. They are intended to help create a safe environment around them where they can feel truly understood, and to help strengthen that vital relationship between the parent and the autistic child.”

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The First Steps programme includes six weeks of regular home visits from licenced child psychotherapists and paediatric occupational therapists. Working in collaboration with the child and caregiver, the programme team will assess how the child and family function within their home environment and deliver an expertly curated support and guidance plan for enhancing intentional and reciprocal child and caregiver interaction. Caregivers will be provided with the tools to recognise how their personal stress impacts on the interaction with their autistic child and enable them to develop appropriate communication styles of interaction.

The programme aims to enable parents and carers to develop a deeper understanding of their child’s experience and what they are trying to communicate. This enhances their ability to notice enjoyable ‘incidents of glimmer’ in their interaction with the child and create an environment where these moments can be replicated.

At the heart of Norland’s research and expertise, is the importance of the family environment in nurturing a child. Through First Steps, parents will learn all the skills required to create the optimal environment to create a deep and sensitive emotional connection with their child, free of under- and over-stimulation. First Steps also aims to empower parents and carers to seek support and collaborate with statutory, voluntary private service providers and educational institutions to receive services that meet the child’s and family’s needs.

Through engaging with the First Steps programme, children will gain a stronger sense of self and enhanced emotional resilience and deeper connections with their family and friends.

For further information about the programme, read the project synopsis or contact Dr Theodora Papatheodorou.

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