A family in Eastern Passage, with three children on the autism spectrum and one with Down syndrome, says they're noticing a huge improvement in their daughter's behaviour after finally getting into the IWK's early intensive behavioural intervention (EIBI) program.

Felecia Outhouse says it was a shock when she and her husband Michael first heard the news about their daughter.

"When Emme was diagnosed, I was devastated," she said.

It's a difficult situation with one special needs child. It's even harder with four.

'Not knowing how to help your daughter and knowing that there's help out there and you can't access it is very difficult.' - Felecia Outhouse

The Outhouse's oldest child, 9-year-old Ian,  was diagnosed with high-functioning autism two months after Emme.

Their seven-year-old son Eric has Down syndrome and their youngest, two-year-old Evan, has a provisional diagnosis of autism.

Felecia works nights and Michael works days, so they can care for all four children.

Emme was unable to communicate and had fits that made it difficult for the family to go on a simple outing, like to a restaurant.

"We were very trapped in what we could do,” Michael said.

The Outhouses say the EIBI therapy at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax helps them function as a family.

The intensive therapy is one of the only known effective treatments for autism. It's time-sensitive, working best on children before they hit school age.

Emme receives individual care from psychologists and other experts through the program. Her parents credit that treatment for her progress.

"Absolutely remarkable change. Last year at this time, Emme didn't have the ability to communicate her needs to us,” her father said.

Long wait times

There are 60 children with autism enrolled in the program, and another 90 waiting to get in.

Emme's been in the program since September, but spent a year on the wait list.

"It was torture. ... Not knowing how to help your daughter and knowing that there's help out there and you can't access it is very difficult," said her mother.

Ian is too old for EIBI and Emme will age out of the program in September

The Outhouses hope Evan will get the care he needs earlier than Emme did.

Earlier this year, officials with the EIBI program at the IWK say they saw a 14 per cent increase in referrals to their program in the last year, but funding from the province is stagnant.

The province spends about $8 million per year on EIBI programs across Nova Scotia.