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Maternal and Child Health (MCH) nurses in Victoria will have access to specialised training on how to identify early signs of autism in babies during their routine checks.

The training, provided by La Trobe University’s Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) and funded by the Victorian government, will help nurses build their skills and confidence in reliably identifying early signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) during routine checks at 12, 18 and 24 months.

Professor Cheryl Dissanake, Director of La Trobe’s OTARC, said it would ensure more children with autism are identified and diagnosed earlier- with considerably improved long-term outcomes.

“Research has shown 82% of babies who show early behavioural signs of autism at 12, 18 and 24 months have autism,” she said.

“We know that children diagnosed at two or younger do considerably better intellectually by school age than those diagnosed at the age of three or later.”

Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe’s OTARC, Dr Josephine Barbaro, who led the breakthrough Social Attention and Communications Study (SACS), which influenced a Parliamentary recommendation to fund all MCH nurses in Victoria, said the training would develop nurses in both identifying early signs and in supporting parents.

“The training will give maternal and child health nurses confidence in spotting the early signs of autism in infants and creating referral pathways, as well as in how to raise concerns with parents in an empathetic and supportive way.

“We want to empower the parents as well as the nurses, to prevent the huge gap between parents’ first concerns and a definitive diagnosis, which can often be incredibly frustrating.”

The professional development package will be offered to all 1,250 MCH nurses currently delivering the service in Victoria and will include both online and face-to-face training.

Training has already been rolled out across Tasmania, parts of New South Wales and in many other countries, with over 98% of nurses reporting confidence in identifying early signs and deciding which referral paths to follow.