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Laura Fergusson Auckland to work with Autism NZ in new early childhood disability support programme

One of Auckland’s longstanding providers of support to disabled people, Laura Fergusson Trust Incorporated, (‘Laura Fergusson Auckland’) has announced a ground-breaking strategic alliance with Autism New Zealand to expand the early detection and support of a range of developmental disabilities in infants and pre-schoolers.

Distinguished academic and health system design consultant, Professor Des Gorman MD PhD, who has been assisting the Trust with its future endeavours, played a key role in facilitating the strategic alliance, which will be rolled out in a pilot in West Auckland over the coming months.

Professor Gorman is a former head of the University of Auckland Medical School.

“The synergies between Laura Fergusson Auckland’s ability to fund services for disabled Aucklanders, and the on-the-ground experience of Autism New Zealand’s staff and partners, will make a world of difference to very young disabled people and their families,” Professor Gorman said.

The expanded service proposal will be based on Autism New Zealand’s Early Steps programme, which identifies autistic children at an early age, and provides support pathways so the child can attend school and live the life they want to live with appropriate support for them and their family.

The Early Steps preschool programme launched in mid-2019 with funding from the Ministry of Education has reported very positive results from its work so far. The programme is currently working with 49 children.

Further, and with the support of an early identification tool developed at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Autism New Zealand have trained 250 Plunket nurses in identifying children in early infancy who may need support for autism.

The aim of the new programme with support from Laura Fergusson Auckland is to expand early detection services and widen the scope of the programme to provide appropriate support to children with cognitive developmental disorders, including for example: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, hearing challenges and other neurodiverse conditions.

“The economic and social benefits of early diagnosis and treatment of these conditions multiplies with time, as children grow into adolescents and adults who can fully participate in society,” Professor Gorman said.

“Australian research conducted over the last ten years, including that undertaken by The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Paediatric & Child Health Division, indicated that early intervention is extremely effective in promoting development progress in infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities. Programmes aimed towards less severely affected children, identified before six months of age and which encouraged high levels of family involvement, achieved the best outcomes,” he said.

“A model of early identification and then effective support has been one we have been working on for a number of years, Autism New Zealand Chief Executive Dane Dougan said. “We are thankful to Professor Gorman for the introduction to Laura Ferguson Auckland and we look forward to working with them on creating positive outcomes for a much wider community.”

Laura Fergusson Auckland Chairman Chris O’Brien said he and the Board of Management were excited to be working with Autism New Zealand to apply their learnings across a range of neurodivergent conditions and facilitating improved outcomes for a much wider group of infants and their families.

“With the expected success of this pilot programme in West Auckland, we hope to be able to extend it to other regions in coming years,” Mr O’Brien said.

“The restructuring of Laura Fergusson Auckland is the enabler for sustainable services of this type. As it happens, our first opportunity has arisen in relation to very young children with cognitive developmental challenges. For this group, early detection and early intervention, particularly in a family centred environment, provides the greatest likelihood of long-term health and well-being. The individual, family and wider economic impacts are all very positive. At the same time, we are also evaluating equally encouraging initiatives to assist a wider age range”

“The strategic alliance with Autism New Zealand is just the first of the new initiatives we hope to launch in the coming months and years, as the Trust enters an exciting future with a new governance and financial structure,” the Chairman said.

Laura Fergusson Auckland is in the process of selling its central Auckland property, as disability research encourages, and consequently Crown Agency health policies are focussed towards caring for people within their homes or communities, rather than in a centralised facility.

The proceeds of the sale, expected to be finalised before the end of this year, will provide the basis for the transformation of the Trust into a body well equipped to serve the wider disability community, both through collaborative initiatives, such as that with Autism New Zealand and standalone projects where several promising initiatives are also being evaluated.

O’Brien says the Laura Fergusson Auckland remains true to its founding purpose and values. With the changes to health funding models and policies, it is now focused on projects which will improve accessibility for those with disabilities, via breakthrough technologies and other initiatives. The aim is to assist the disabled community and their families to achieve an improved quality of life.