The Social ABCs: support for families while awaiting autism assessment
Rachel Morgan’s three-year-old son Link has always been a good communicator. He’s just not much of a talker.
When he was two years old, staff at Link’s daycare suggested he needed help with spoken language. They recommended speech therapy.
“That’s been mostly positive for him,” said Morgan. “He picked up and used a few words, but he often slides back into his sign language.”
Link is also on the provincial waiting list for autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which for kids Link’s age can be up to a year and a half.
“That’s a long wait for parents,” said Dr. Nadine DeWolfe, a pediatric psychologist with Health PEI. “And because we're talking about toddlers in the 12- to 42-month range, it’s also a time when intervention could make a big difference. That's where the Social ABCs can help.”
The Social ABCs is a early intervention program for toddlers showing social-communication challenges that may be signs of ASD. Developed in Ontario by Dr. Jessica Brian and Dr. Susan Bryson, the Social ABCs is parent mediated. Parents learn a set of strategies for helping their toddler communicate and interact socially.
“I’m a big fan of this program,” said Dr. DeWolfe. “It’s evidence-based with a lot of research to demonstrate its effectiveness. It gives parents a sense of confidence in what they’re doing and gives them skills to bolster communication and positive emotion sharing with their toddlers. Well after the 12-week program is finished, parents can continue to intervene.”
“Link’s speech therapist said the Social ABCs would be a good fit for him,” said Morgan. “He’s a really engaged kid who loves activities, especially if they’re one-on-one with an adult. He loves daycare. He loves his teachers. This would be right up his alley.”
Dave Maloney is one of two Social ABCs coaches recently trained for Prince Edward Island. Health PEI began offering the program for families in November of 2021.
“This program is very play- and activities-based,” said Maloney. "When I’m assigned to a family, I show up at their home and we talk about the program and what to expect. And then we play.”
The Social ABCs teaches parents intervention strategies in a natural environment, right at home. Maloney said almost any fun activity can be turned into an opportunity to learn.
“Link loves bubbles,” said Morgan. “Dave taught us how to make our regular game of bubbles into something to encourage talking.”
Morgan begins by blowing bubbles, to the absolute delight of Link.
“Once he’s engaged in the activity, that’s when Rachel can intervene with language encouragement,” said Maloney. “At first, she’s blowing bubbles for Link to chase and pop. Once the game is going and he’s really into it, Rachel switches things up a bit. She waits for Link’s attention, gives him a verbal cue, and waits for his directed verbal response. And Link’s response can be any sound or even an attempt at a word. Link quickly understands it’s up to him to trigger the bubbles.”
“It’s completely natural,” said Morgan. “It’s just play. I want him to say something to let me know it’s time to blow bubbles. He’s having so much fun, he does.”
The first portion of the program involves home visits up to twice a week. As parents become more comfortable with the program, the visits drop to once a week.
“Near the end, we take a less active role in our coaching and let the parent take the lead,” said Maloney. “I’m watching to see how the parent is doing with their intervention, and I’m providing encouragement. We’re also just talking about how it’s going. With this program, I’m training the parents to become interventionists. Once they know what to do, my job is to encourage them.”
Almost a month after the program ended, Morgan still thinks about it every day.
“It’s so easy, now that I know what I’m doing,” said Morgan. “And it’s something I can do for five minutes, half an hour, whatever. It fits into whatever we’re already doing, which is playing.”
“I’m really excited about how this program is working out on PEI,” said Dr. DeWolfe. “We have two enthusiastic coaches who are having fantastic experiences with families. And we’re hearing great feedback from parents, which is really encouraging.”
“Link is talking more, for sure,” said Morgan. “And he’s making more attempts to speak. I feel really lucky to have been a part of the Social ABCs. It’s been a lot of fun for all of us.”