'Way less work down the road': Saskatoon program provides autism intervention for kids under 4
Director, parent advocate for more funding
When Carrie Hart got the call that her son Lucas was accepted into Saskatoon's Little Tots program, she was beside herself.
"I remember that day. I was with my friend at the Forestry Farm. I was in the car and I think I started crying and then I probably did laps in my car because I was so excited. It was an instant sense of relief."
Relief because her son was about to get the help he needed to overcome some big challenges. Lucas was diagnosed with autism shortly after turning two. Hart knew he needed a type of therapy that would allow him to catch up on the speech and social skills he was struggling to develop.
She wanted her son in the Little Tots program because of its reputation. Little Tots is an intensive early intervention program for children between 18 and 48 months. It is run by Autism Services of Saskatoon and provides one-on-one therapy for autistic children. It is also the only program of its kind in Saskatchewan.
Desirae Boutin, Little Tots' interim director, and her team of therapists focus on making small, incremental steps with children during their time together.
"We really love celebrating the small successes that happen every day. That's probably one of the most motivating parts of my job is that I get to celebrate small things every day," said Boutin.
How it works
For the past two and a half years, for four days a week, Hart has dropped Lucas off at Autism Services of Saskatoon for therapy sessions. There, he learns skills to improve his ability to communicate and socialize with others.
Lucas also receives a weekly visit at his home from different therapists. This is meant to generalize the skills he is learning.
"Some kids are really particular when they learn a skill. They'll only learn it in that particular setting with one particular person. So that's something that we build into our program is working with different people and then having that generalization to different environments," said Boutin.
Hart has seen her son thrive in the program. His vocabulary is growing, he's riding a bicycle with training wheels, and recently started dressing himself. Hart knows that most parents would take these skills for granted, but she knows how far Lucas has come thanks to Little Tots.
"Lucas has to learn every skill. He doesn't learn much naturally. We did need help because Lucas wasn't communicating at all. He wasn't responding to his name. He kind of just did his own thing," she said.
"It made everything hard, like sleeping and safety. Everyday tasks that we take for granted, he couldn't do, so I had to either teach him or do it for him."
Potential to grow?
Currently, the provincial government is providing $550,000 for Little Tots. That is enough money for 12 spots in the program, but the demand far exceeds that.
Lynn Latta, the executive director of Autism Services of Saskatoon, is hopeful that autism programs like Little Tots will receive more attention now that the province falls under one health authority.
"I think that throughout the province, there's challenges to be able to resource with the staffing that you need and the dollars that you need, but there are children with autism everywhere in this province. Every classroom is dealing with it; every preschool; every daycare. It's there," she said.
"It excites me to have this umbrella being able to look at one big picture and say, 'What can we do?'"
In a few months, Lucas will graduate from the program and begin kindergarten with his peers. Hart knows her son's life would be vastly different if not for Little Tots.
"If I wanted to say anything to anybody or if I wanted to say something to the government, it would be to give more money so that all the kids that apply can get the help they need. It would be nice to help the kids now because early intervention is key. It means there is way less work down the road."
This article is based on an episode of YXE Underground. It's a podcast focusing on people in Saskatoon who are making a difference in the community but are not receiving the attention they deserve in social or mainstream media. You can listen to YXE Underground here. You can also download episodes on iTunes or the podcast app of your choice.
- You can read all of the YXE Underground articles here.