When toddlers show signs of autism spectrum disorder, parents often have to wait many months before diagnosis and treatment begins.

A new program from UBC aims to help parents during this crucial time with coaching on how to improve their development and interact and engage with their children during daily routines.

"Many of the ways we will be coaching parents to interact are ways that come very naturally to parents, if their children are responsive," professor Pat Mirenda told On The Coast guest host Gloria Macarenko.

"But if children are at risk for autism, they're often not especially responsive. They don't play. They don't interact the way you expect a child to. So, often parents don't interact with them the way they would interact with a typically developing kid.

"So, we want to teach parents to do those things that we know will promote social and communication growth."

12 to 18 month wait

Mirenda says parents often first suspect their child is not developing typically when some subtle signs appear: the child might not provide feedback during games, might not smile much or might not talk at an age when talking would be expected.

She says this is usually the point where parents seek help from experts like doctors or development specialists, but sometimes the support intervention is not as intense or as targeted as it needs to be for children on the autism spectrum.

"The path that parents take between when they first notice and when the child is diagnosed really varies," she said. "It can be 12 to 18 months and during that period families are at least anxious if not very stressed."

Mirenda says the UBC program is part research project, part intervention, and will involve 150 families over three years. She expects the coaching will begin in about a year.

She advises any families concerned about the development of their child to contact a pediatrician or child development centre.

Listen to the full interview:

With files from CBC Radio One's On The Coast