Ask the Expert: An Interview with Professor Sally Rogers

Having worked in SEN teaching and management as an Autism Specialist for a number of years, I was always drawn to the field of naturalistic, play based early intervention for young children with ASD. Following the publication of the first Early Start Denver Model RCT in 2010, I was lucky enough to visit the UC Davis MIND Institute and spend time with Professor Sally Rogers and her team as part of the first cohort of ESDM certification for professionals. My time there was truly inspiring and had a huge impact on the way that I have developed my own practice ever since. Sally has continued to be a source of support, encouragement and inspiration over the years and it was a great honour to have her on the most recent episode of the Play2Pod podcast.

Sadly, since my visit to UC Davis, there has not been any changes to the levels of support and intervention that children receive in the UK. In many ways things have got worse. One of the most striking discussion points was actually part of the conversation before the interview started. I was talking about how in many cases we don’t have children starting with our services until they are almost 4, having had no intervention at all to that point. As Sally remarks during the podcast, this simply is not something that they see in the US anymore. She hasn’t had that experience for over a decade. This just shows what a long way we have to go to get things right for children and their families who need help at the very start.

However, as countless research studies have shown, parent power works! The benefits of an NDBI model like ESDM or Play2Talk is that it is not necessary to have intensive services from therapists and costly intervention programmes. Children can make just as much positive progress through a parent coaching model than they would with hours of therapy time.

Whilst our government catches up with the rest of the world, we can keep using play as the most powerful tool. The science, and the experts, would agree!

Play2Pod Special- Professor Sally Rogers – Play2Pod | Acast

Stories of Hope: A Podcast

An important part of our work is supporting parents, care givers and the wider family start to understand their child’s motivations and challenges. As part of this, we also want to focus on the positives to help everyone in that child’s life see that there is lots of potential to learn and grow, and that there is a path that we can help them along.

Within everything, there is always hope, and over the last 11 years of running our Blue Sky Autism centres, we know that hope can change everything.

So, we decided that one of the best ways to share our Stories of Hope would be through a podcast!

Play2Pod launched on 25/3/21 (Blue Sky’s 11th Birthday!) and is available on all good podcast services. Episodes will be uploaded every Thursday at 7am. Have a listen! We know you will be glad you did!

A Film About Finding Your Voice

On 25/11/2020 we officially launched Play2Talk on our social media and had an overwhelming response! Part of our launch included a very special premiere of our film, featuring a number of the little superstars that we have supported through our Blue Sky project over the years .

One of the biggest issues we have with current provision in the UK for children who have social communication and/ developmental challenges is that they are written off from an early age. They are regarded from the outset as children who may never learn to talk. For us at Play2Talk, and through our work at our Blue Sky Autism centres, we strongly disagree with this way of working.

It is deeply damaging for families to be told that their 2 year old may never speak. These assertions are wholly grounded in outdated perspectives of autism, and disability more generally. Additionally, by not providing a child with the chance to access well evidenced approaches that have years of research proving their efficacy in developing verbal language , children are being prevented from having a voice.

This is against their basic human rights. The UNCRC Article 13 states :

The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”

This is why our approach, and other NDBI models, are so important in giving children the best possible start in life. In supporting the early development of their communication skills, we are ensuring that children have every opportunity to find their words, and be able to express themselves as freely as they can, and smash through those glass ceilings that should never be there in the first place.

“You just say the words out loud and it’s a miracle” Sonny, age 9

Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen

November 2020

Making Sense of the Sensory

There is a lot of information out there on the sensory side of things when you google developmental delays and neuro diversity. Some of it is good and some of it is not, and some of it is just completely overwhelming.

At Play2Talk our first  focus is on identifying and using children’s sensory interests and differences as a way to capture and use their biggest motivations to teach communication and other new skills. In doing so, we attempt to make the sensory side of things a little less complicated, whilst still acknowledging the complexity of each individual’s neurological needs.

If we think about sensory processing as the need for balance and regulation, we are recognising that some children may need to have a different level of input in each area in order to support that balance. Traditionally, there has been a focus on calling these ‘sensory behaviours’ or referring to a child as being ‘sensory’, but in reality this does little to explain and break down these ‘behaviours’ into something meaningful.

So… back to the idea of balance.
We all process the world around us through our sensory systems. There are seven of these, and they need to work together to keep us feeling regulated. For neurotypical individuals, our visual system interacts with our auditory and tactile, alongside our proprioception which tells us where our body is in space and our vestibular system which informs our balance. All of these then interact with out olfactory and gustatory senses (smell and taste) and when everything works together, this is how we process the world around us. 

When young children have delays with their development, they often have differences in their neurological profiles and their sensory systems don’t always work together effectively. This can result in both sensory seeking and sensory avoidant behaviours across different domains,, and can be referred to as ‘sensory processing disorder’.
When first assessing children in Play2Talk, we ask parents to observe their child’s preferences and dislikes in order to see what sensory input they may be seeking, and what they may be avoiding. This is powerful information for supporting parents to capture their child’s attention and build motivating shared play routines. Often, the things that children are seeking out can be used very effectively to support play, social engagement and learning. The things that they dislike can then be avoided, so rather than having an unhappy and disregulated little one, it becomes a far happier play experience for everyone. Parents become the expert in their child’s sensory interests and can build shared play routines around these.
For example, if a child seeks out visual input we can capture their attention and focus through toys and activities that give them this feedback. Conversely, if children are showing auditory sensitivities then we hold out on the nursery rhymes for a while!! 

The ‘sensory side of things’ doesn’t have to be over complicated. Observe your child, see what it is they are seeking out or spending a lot of time doing and build your play around this particular sensory input. Remember, it’s all about balance and once you start providing your child with the input they are looking for, they will be happier, easier to engage and more ready to learn. Most of all, it’s about having fun- so seek out those smiles and look for that laughter!

Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen

November 2020

Working with Babies- How Early is Too Early?

Quick answer here- it’s never too early to start to do something if you have concerns about your baby’s development.

It is clear from many research studies, and across the 20 years I have worked in this field, that parents and caregivers are always right with their gut instincts. Numerous parents I have engaged with as a Consultant have recalled that their concerns about their child’s development started as early as 3-4 months old. 

Unfortunately in the United Kingdom, where the majority of my work has been, Doctors rarely act on these concerns and often disregard caregivers’ opinions altogether.

Meanwhile, there is a window of opportunity to change a child’s developmental trajectory which could easily be missed.

Although Autism is the key concern for many parents and caregivers when they start to worry about their baby, there are a wide range of neurological differences that can impact on a young child’s development, including Dyspraxia, ADHD and sensory processing difficulties.  

It’s difficult not to go down the google rabbit hole when you first start to worry, and it can be extremely confusing when trying to understand your child’s differences in development. Often they do not fit into a diagnostic ‘box’.  That’s why it is always important to look at a child as an individual, rather than focusing on a set of symptoms that may or may not be something that results in diagnosis later on. Every child is unique and some children just have a different way of developing. It’s also confusing to try and decide whether to ‘do something’ or just wait and see. But, if your baby is finding some things a little trickier than they should, then it’s never to early to try and find ways that you can help them. 

From the growing body of research that looks specifically at infants who are at risk of developing autism (babies who are showing very early red flags and/or siblings of children on the spectrum), the evidence points very clearly to the importance of intervening early and the impact that this can have longer term. However, this evidence does not advocate an intensive ‘therapist led’ approach. Instead, the greatest impact on child progress comes from parent power! 

Supporting parents and caregivers to better understand their baby’s differences and strengths, whilst coaching them in strategies that will help to bridge some of the gaps in development that they have identified is absolutely the best way forward. 

This is why in Play2Talk we use a parent coaching model that builds the skills of those who know their baby best. When supporting babies who are finding the social side of development a little difficult, focusing on capturing attention and building engagement in fun 2 person play activities can really help. Once those foundations are in place, you can then work on building opportunities to teach your baby the early communication skills that they may be finding tricky. Most of all, whatever you choose to do with your baby early on, make sure it’s fun! Parents and caregivers who are worried at this stage are often experiencing huge levels of stress. We would strongly recommend that one of the most important things to try and do is to find ways to make your baby laugh! Even if you have to do this in the most unusual ways! Look for the smile and go with it! 

Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen

October 2020

Introducing Play2Talk

Having worked in the field of autism and early intervention for over 20 years, I am very aware of the magnitude of information that exists around therapy approaches. Over these past two decades, I have spent time undertaking training and certification in a wide range of models. This training has incorporated both the developmental (a Montessori teaching diploma, a PGCE in Early Years, DIR Floortime, drama and play therapy) alongside the behavioural (ABA, VB, PBS) and the mixed (ESDM, PRT). I am also a researcher, completing my MA in Autism and Education in 2006 and my Doctorate in Education in 2017. I have continued to have a keen interest in following research trends in this field, in order to continue to ensure that my practice and that of my therapy teams is based on the most recent and up to date findings.

After using and advocating other researchers’ interventions for a very long time, I realised that the unique mix of training that I had undertaken enabled me to use a wide ranging ‘toolbox’ of strategies that I would always fit around child’s individual needs. There was not, and never will be, a one size all method for supporting children with developmental challenges. However, the way in which I (and the teams I train and supervise) work so effectively with each and every child we meet has become a well established method in its own right.

Over 98% of the children that we meet learn to talk with our support. 100% of the families that refer to our services first identify their child’s differences through their difficulties with speech. Speech and communication are the key part of a child’s development that can make such a positive, long term difference in their experience of the world around them. Language is powerful, but so is play. Play is the foundation of everything I do when I am supporting children to communicate and learn. Using play to teach children to talk has been so enormously successful in my own experience, and the experiences of my teams over the years, that is was simply time to start to formalise the fun!

Play2Talk has been developed so I can share this approach far and wide and support parents, family members and professionals to learn some simple, practical and enjoyable ways to help their child learn to engage and communicate. It is a model that is flexible enough to support each child’s individual strengths and differences, but with a strong focus on staying true to an already established and every growing evidence base. Whilst the approach is new, the foundations sit firmly within the NDBI paradigm and I hope that our ongoing research and evaluation of the Play2Talk model will make a valuable contribution to this field. I also hope that by disseminating this model through our online and face to face courses, many more families will be supported to help their child reach their fullest potential!

Dr Ruth Glynne-Owen

July 2020