12 Oct 2017

Spectrum Playgroup: a special place for kids with autism

From Nine To Noon, 11:29 am on 12 October 2017

After an autism diagnosis, every parent asks 'What next?' and most often the answer is 'Waiting list', says Cat Noakes-Duncan. So she set up a playgroup with a difference.

No caption

Cat Noakes-Duncan with her family Photo: Supplied

Cat is an early childhood teacher training to be a specialist in teaching children on the autism spectrum.

She's also a mum of three, including two who have autism.

After the diagnosis, every parent asks 'What next?', she says.

"And, really, the answer we hear back is 'Waiting list. You put your name on a waiting list and then you wait'."

That wasn't good enough for Cat.

"What can I do to provide something that can be put into place for kids straightaway for kids following diagnosis that they're on the spectrum?"

Getting the diagnosis can be scary for parents and it's different for everyone, Cat says.

It was only after her second child was diagnosed that she felt ready to connect with other parents.

"I was afraid of my own grief."

But every parent wants to be able to do something, she says.

"They want somewhere to go straightaway where there's other eyes on their children and other hands helping their children."

Kindergarten can be anxiety-inducing for kids on the spectrum their parent has to leave.

The community playgroup was an easy model to work from and demand for the playgroup, which is in the Wellington suburb of Naenae, was pretty high from the start, Cat says.

Parents get a chance to catch up with each other and play alongside their children in a specialist learning environment, with a speech and language therapist on hand to help introduce language into the children's interactions.

Kids from right across the spectrum come along, from those with classic autism – who have no verbal language and may behave unusually – to more high-functioning children with stronger communication skills.

One child who has no verbal language at all recently started screaming to communicate, Cat says.

"We celebrate that, we think that's amazing because she's using vocal ranges, she's squealing really high, she's squealing really low, and it's all communication. We're all about it. We just love those moments. That mum is so proud and we're so proud with her."

Cat says Massey University's Postgraduate Diploma in Specialist Teaching (Autism Spectrum Disorder) is an "amazing course" and the Ministry of Education offers funding.

She encourages teachers interested in specialising to check it out.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Nine To Noon

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)