Child Development Institute opens in Wollongong to help kids with autism

Lisa Wachsmuth

Just weeks after starting sessions at Wollongong's new early intervention centre, little Samson Howari stretched out his arms, looked his mum in the eye and asked for a cuddle.

For most parents of toddlers that's pretty cute - for the mother of a two-year-old with a severe level of autism, it was monumental.

Kiama parents Leanne and Sam Howari have noticed other changes too since Samson started at the Child Development Institute based at Wollongong university's Innovation Campus.

The centre, which officially opened this week, gives Illawarra children living with autism, their families and their carers and educators, vital access to world-class therapies.

"Samson has autism spectrum disorder level three, global development delay, severe speech and language disorder, sensory processing disorder and emotional disregulation," Mrs Howari said.

"From a baby I noticed he had issues with eye contact, but thought he had issues with his vision. I noticed he didn't respond to his name or follow instructions, and so we thought it was his hearing.

"Autism was not a word I'd ever used so I missed other obvious early signs, like flapping hands and squealing, and so I wasn't articulating these things properly to doctors and specialists."

Finally, Samson received the diagnosis around 12 months ago but a lack of information - and local services - left the couple feeling "very much alone".

"You feel a lot of grief as a parent - and have to adjust your expectations of what you'd imagined your little boy would be like," Mrs Howari said.

"But while Samson is nothing like what we'd imagined - he's so much more because of how special he is. He's taught us that you don't need words to say I love you, it can be said in a touch."

There were a lot of fears for their son's future, how he would fit into the world. Yet just weeks after starting the group and individual sessions at the new centre, the benefits are obvious.

"At the end of one group session he came to me, looked right at me, arms outstretched and said 'cuddle' - he'd never done any of those things before," Mrs Howari said.

"He's also started to play in a meaningful way - I'd put away all the toys I'd bought him because he would just hold objects or put them in his mouth. Now I'm bringing them back out because he's actually playing with them.

"He's never interacted with his older sister Laila, 5, before but now they're sitting down doing activities together. It's small things, but it's making a big difference."

The institute follows the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a play-based therapy set in natural surroundings for children aged 12 months to five years.

CEO Nadene Anderson is passionate about early intervention for children with autism, because her own brother Greg was not diagnosed until he was 37.

"Because of my lived experience I know how significant the impact of high quality, evidence-based, education with children can be," she said.

"This is the second institute - we set one up in Sydney in February last year - and we chose Wollongong because there was a lack of services here.

"The power of the model we use is that it's very naturalistic and play-based - children don't realise they're having therapy because they're having so much fun.

"And it's great to see parents feeling empowered to help their children, and for them to watch their children being included in a group setting, and learning skills they'd never been able to achieve."

Institute clinical director Elizabeth Aylward said more than 40 families now had children involved in group and individual programs in Wollongong. Families can use NDIS funding to access programs.

"We have a multi-disciplinary team, including speech pathologists, occupational therapists and early childhood teachers. We also offer a diagnostic service for families still waiting for a diagnosis."

There's also programs for parents and educators - to help them support children at home, or in early childhood centres.

"It's a daily challenge pulling Samson out of his own little world and getting him to engage with us," Mrs Howari said.

"But now we are getting small glimpses that he can interact with us, he is connected with us and he does understand what we are saying."