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changing lives of children with autism

"Twenty years ago, I started working with Mathew, a five-year-old with autism. His parents had made the difficult decision to leave their country of origin, migrating to Australia in search of the best that treatments could offer in autism. Mathew was about to start school, but could not sit with other children at story time because he was too anxious. Mathew did not know what to say to other children or how they felt, and would get frustrated and run out of the classroom. Over time I have worked with Mathew, his family and school to develop his emotional skills. I saw Mathew in September 2020 for our annual review. Mathew is now 25 years old. He is about to graduate from university, has a full-time job, and has his first girlfriend,"
- Dr Michelle Wong, Senior Clinical Psychologist at The Children's Hospital at Westmead

Dr Michelle Wong is an award-winning clinical psychologist in Sydney, Australia who has a vision for every child on the autism spectrum to have access to evidence-based mental health interventions.

For the 1 in 59 children diagnosed with autism, 50% have co-occurring intellectual disability and 70% will develop a mental health problem. Although there is no cure for autism or intellectual disability, mental health problems are preventable and treatable.

Dr Wong is committed to improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum through The Westmead Feelings Program.

This includes the lone psychologist supporting a single patient through to developing the evidence­base and dissemination pathways to enable every person with autism access the program themselves.

This long term vision is now shared by generous philanthropists, the Woodhead Family Benefaction* which supports the program.

Over the last 15 years, The Westmead Feelings Program has been shown to work in the world's largest school-based trial of an emotions program for children on the autism spectrum.

From 2017, the Australian Council for Educational Research have published The Westmead Feelings Program kits  and manuals, launched professional online learning and supported face­ to-face workshops to certify practitioners. It began with 150 autistic children coming through The Children’s Hospital at Westmead clinics, and in the last three years has reached 1200 children with autism, parents and teachers actively using The Westmead Feelings Program and an additional 500 practitioners undergoing training.

In 2019, Dr Wong and her team were awarded for their innovation and improving the lives of people on the autism spectrum by Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect).

Children who have received The Westmead Feelings Program have improved their emotional skills, developed new friendships, gained greater independence, and learnt skills to manage anxiety and depression. The Westmead Feelings Program has a body of evidence, a codified approach, adoption by community practitioners, and endorsement by industry leaders.

The program is ready to transform young people's lives beyond NSW, and beyond Australia. Dr Wong wants to partner with philanthropists who share her vision to digitise The Westmead Feelings Program and take it to the next stage of global expansion.

This next step aims to future proof the program and enable it to transition across the telehealth model of delivery. It will also open the way for international dissemination, build economies of scale, and hopefully it will be the bridge to financial sustainability.

Dr Wong believes every family should have access to evidence-based treatments in their own communities to help their child reach their full potential. Digitisation of the program will enable equitable, universal access to mental health treatments for autism. You can hear more about Dr Wong’s vision for Digital Mental Health Treatments for autism here.

"I'm really grateful for the support that The Woodhead Family Benefaction have given my research and my research team because without them the impact that we have had across Australia for the mental health needs of children with autism wouldn't have been possible," -
Dr Michelle Wong

The Children's Hospital at Westmead where Dr Wong is based is supported by the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation (SCHF), a health promotion charity established in 1986 with the vision of “Healthy Kids…Whatever it Takes.” SCHF supports the health and wellbeing of children and families in NSW and beyond.  They fund lifesaving and transformational initiatives to enable better health care through the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network incorporating The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, Bear Cottage, Sydney Children’s at, Randwick, Kids Research and the Newborn and Paediatric Emergency Transport Service.

*Woodhead Family Benefaction is a client of Equity Trustees.