How the Early Support Program for Autism Helps Parents Connect with their Kids

Group of people smilingESPA parent trainer Gina Baldi, MEd walks us through the program. Her advice? "Don't wait."

What is the Early Support Program for Autism (ESPA)?
ESPA is a joint program between Children's Health Council and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. ESPA started in 2013 and offers two primary services to parents of children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parent Education and Guidance in Navigating Educational and Healthcare Systems. Parents learn about ESPA from other parents, clinicians, pediatricians and schools.

What is your role?
I am a parent trainer for ESPA. My role is to work with parents to support their child's needs. We use developmental techniques that help parents connect with their child and create opportunities to teach through back and forth interaction. I also help parents understand the sometimes daunting process of finding services for their child who has received an autism diagnosis. Parents can be overwhelmed and want to know what they can do right away. In each of our meetings, parents acquire take-away techniques to support their child's development.

Families referred to me participate in four 1:1 parent education sessions. The topics we cover in our sessions include: Attention and Motivation, Sensory Social Activities and Sensory Integration, Building Imitation and Nonverbal Language, Functional Verbal Language and Turn Taking. There are no time constraints for the program so parents can spread out the sessions over weeks, months, or even years. We make the sessions as accessible as possible by meeting with parents in person at CHC's Palo Alto and San Jose offices or by phone or Skype. We've had parents drive from hours away to meet with us, and we have received calls from parents around the world.

In addition to the parent sessions, I also lead monthly parent education and support groups that cover topics of interest to our parents such as Behavior, Anxiety, Social Skills, Sleep Issues, Nutrition, Public Benefits and Financial Planning.

What's your favorite part of your job?
Parenting is a tough job—period. Receiving a diagnosis for a child adds another dimension of complexity. Whether newly diagnosed, awaiting a diagnosis, or seeking support for an older child that has been diagnosed for a number of years, the favorite part of my job is supporting parents through this difficult process. The whole approach we use is based on the idea that the child is unconditionally loved and accepted just as they are. There are no limitations to what their child can learn and what they can do. I teach parents to be in the moment, connect with their child, and get to know their child. Once connected, we have the opportunity to teach.

What are the most unique aspects of ESPA?
It's 100% free (thanks to generous support from the John & Marcia Goldman Foundation), available in Spanish and English, and most importantly, there is no wait list. We make time for everyone. So many programs out there have extensive wait lists—we respond quickly.

We say "early support" because the goal is to work with parents of children under five who receive an Autism diagnosis. The need is so high for all age groups that we've worked with parents of a child as young as three months and as old as fifteen. In the first meeting, we talk about programming, what's out there, and how to access services. We also connect them to other parents who are further along in the process.

What advice do you have for parents who think their child might be on the autism spectrum?
Don't wait. Parents with concerns about their child's development could be on an ABA wait list for months up to a year. That waiting period is critical time that they could be engaging with their child, learning techniques, building a support network, and making progress. The earlier we can start working with the family, the better the outcome. Call ESPA. No diagnosis needed.

Here's what one ESPA client has to say…

"I am amazed this program is being offered and at no cost. This is the most valuable information I have received. Gina is much more than an educator of information. She is a support system that I don't believe exist anywhere else for me and my family. She is easy to talk to and gives excellent guidance for me to immediately implement techniques that work. I continue to be in shock and awe that this program exists and the very high level of quality of the program. Pinch me."

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