McMaster Children’s Hospital pilots new autism intervention

McMaster Children’s Hospital pilots new autism intervention

A change in their son

As a baby, Gavin was smiley and enjoyed playtime with his older brother. His speech developed early and his vocabulary quickly grew to include over 30 words. As he got older he stopped talking. It became difficult for his parents and siblings to communicate with him, and his mom Kara felt like his personality was slipping away.

“He was going backwards, which was really hard to watch,” she recalls.

Gavin was diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) just before his third birthday. His doctor referred him to the Autism Spectrum Disorder Service at McMaster Children’s Hospital’s (MCH) Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre. After receiving his diagnosis, Gavin’s parents were excited to learn about a new opportunity designed for kids his age.

A new opportunity

The Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services had recently selected MCH to pilot a new intervention for toddlers with social communication challenges—an early sign of ASD. In December, Gavin and his family became one of the first participants in the Social ABCs program, developed by Jessica Brian of the University of Toronto and Susan Bryson of Dalhousie University. The family was paired with Chantelle Shaver, Social ABCs program coordinator at Ron Joyce Children’s Health Centre, who made visits to the family’s home to work with them on communication goals.

“We’re teaching parents to be contingent.”

“The main goals are to teach the child how to use language to communicate and to encourage sharing of positive emotion through smiles and eye contact,” Shaver says. “We are teaching the parents how to achieve these goals with their children.”

The program involves 12 weeks of home-based intervention. Each week, a parent coach guides the family through a module that’s meant to help the child develop social and communication skills through motivational and behaviour strategies.

“We are focused on empowering parents to help their children towards their verbal goals,” Shaver notes. “By giving them these skills, they are able to continue progressing after the 12 week intervention concludes.”

Focus on vocal

Over the course of the program, Kara learned how to engage with Gavin so he’s more likely to give a vocal response. He enjoys movement activities like jumping on his trampoline and playing in his tunnel. When she plays with him, he vocalizes, asking her to continue.


“When I prompt him during the tunnel game, he’s able to vocalize to me that he wants me to keep going,” Kara says. “I wait until I get that vocal cue before I keep playing. He’s learned that when he vocalizes, he gets that reward.”

“The program gave us the tools we need to keep going in this direction.”

“We’re teaching parents to be contingent,” Shaver notes. “If we prompt the child vocally, we expect them to respond vocally. We’re reinforcing that when they make an intentional attempt to vocalize —whether that’s by making a noise or using a word—they get the reward.”

Still making progress

Gavin’s 12 week session wrapped up in March, and since then, his family has continued to work through the strategies with him. They spend time on it every day and are seeing ongoing improvements.

“The program gave us the tools we need to keep going in this direction,” Kara says. “We’re really happy with the progress.”

Gavin has started vocalizing to his siblings when he wants them to stop touching his toys. He is also starting to use some words—night night, cracker, Caillou—he enjoys saying hard “C” sounds. His babbling has increased and he is making eye contact more frequently. Beyond the progress in his communication, his family has enjoyed discovering more of his personality through the curriculum.

“I’m learning more about what he likes and dislikes,” Kara says. “It’s nice to connect with him.”

Since the Social ABCs program launched at MCH in December, 22 families have started the intervention. The pilot will continue for three years, at which point the Ministry will decide whether to expand it to other sites in Ontario.