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Newborns, autism and the birth of bold new research

The first weeks of a newborn’s life make for such an exciting time. And for the hundreds and thousands of children with autism, they could also be some of the most important.

For world-leading autism researcher Professor Andrew Whitehouse of Telethon Kids Institute in Perth, when it comes to newborns and developmental disorders, there’s literally no time like the present.

His team at CliniKids, the Institute’s first centre integrating research and clinical practice, is asking a bold, world-first question: can we positively impact the ability and wellbeing of children with autism just weeks out of the womb? They’re looking at early, pre-emptive intervention – far earlier than anyone else – to see if they can prevent lifelong disability, improve long term social and communication skills, and enable each child to reach their full potential.
Walk through CliniKid’s doors and you’ll find families, researchers and clinicians surrounded by calming colours, bespoke playrooms and quiet cubby holes. The perfect place for kids to receive individually tailored support alongside some of the very best evidence-based therapies in the world.

“We are committed to working in the community. Life happens in the community, and that’s where we feel we can have the greatest impact,” Professor Whitehouse said.

“It’s an absolute privilege to work with families who love their kids more than anything. Their kids are developing differently, and they’re learning what that means.  We get to be intimately involved through that process and hopefully contribute to positive outcomes for that family.  You don’t often get that opportunity in research.”

Spearheaded by Telethon Kids Institute and in collaboration with Victoria’s La Trobe University, his team hopes to reinvent the clinical pathway in place since the 1970’s.
Currently, clinicians wait until they’re sure kids are developing differently (around ages three or four) before diagnosing and beginning intervention. By then, children’s brains have already grown to 80 to 90 per cent of adult size. 

Professor Whitehouse’s team felt they could do more. 

“We wondered, what if we started as soon as they’re born, before any overt behavioural symptoms develop. Can we develop an intervention for newborns, which is so outside the norm, and then trial it?”

And they’re doing just that. Trialing of a very early intervention has started with babies who have a higher likelihood of developing developmental delay and/or autism spectrum disorder, due to family history. This will pave the way for national and international scaling in communities.

“Each child on the autism spectrum exudes wondrous humanity. We want our therapies to remove life barriers for that child, helping them learn to talk, be independent, and show the world how much they have to offer. This is our passion, and this is our mission.”

Professor Whitehouse says Telethon Kids’ location in Perth and its innovative, boundary-pushing leadership makes it the best place in the world to do this kind of research.
“Perth is big enough that you get a large number of people for a trial, but small enough that you can have a conversation and implement that in policy. 

“There’s no other organisation but Telethon Kids that could do this.”
Read more about the Telethon Kids Institute.

This organisation is supported by trusts managed by Equity Trustees.