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Lifestart is a family-centred Early Childhood Intervention and School Age service for children with developmental disabilities or autism, and their families which is based in Sydney, Australia. It is play-based, research-based, and follows a naturalistic social behavioural model.
Lifestart began in 1996 when eight families whose children attended the Macquarie University Early Intervention program decided to set up an Early Childhood Intervention service which would be a model of best practice in service provision and family support. They won a tender from the NSW state government which allowed them to set up a small service in Turramurra, and was later named the model program for the state of NSW. The service is now spread right across Sydney, covering the Hornsby, Eastwood, Northern Beaches, Eastern Sydney, Cumberland-Prospect, Inner West, and Nepean regions. Lifestart is partly funded by the NSW Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care, the NSW Department of Education and Training, and relies heavily upon donations. It is a registered charity.
An Lifestart team generally consists of a teacher with Special Education training, a Speech and Language pathologist, a Physiotherapist, an Occupational therapist, and is led by an Area Coordinator. A key feature of Lifestart is the “transdisciplinary model”, where staff members discuss and work on goals even when they are outside their discipline.
Each family is assigned a Family Service Coordinator who is the key worker and chief advocate for the family.
Services are provided within the home, the child’s school or daycare, at one of Lifestart’s centres, or within the community (e.g. supporting inclusion into a swimming program). One of the most important programs is Open Playgroup, a weekly playgroup where parents can meet together and support one another while their children are supported in play by trained staff. This playgroup is open to members of the community and families on the waiting list as well as Lifestart members.
The IFSP, (Individual Family Service Plan) is one of the key features of Lifestart’s program. This meeting is usually held biannually, and provides a forum for the family to express their particular needs and concerns at that time, as well as a time for all the workers, family members and friends who are involved with the child to come together and celebrate the things achieved over the previous months.
The Hanen Centre’s communication programs are used across all Lifestart centres, as is the Small Steps developmental checklist, and most staff are trained in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System).
Originally Lifestart catered almost wholly for children with Down syndrome. Now Lifestart supports children with any developmental disability, and has a significant number of children on the autism spectrum. Specific programs, including Starting Points, have been developed for children with autism and their families.
All Lifestart centres have waiting lists. Families can refer themselves, but must live within a specific area and may not access Lifestart if they already access another Early Childhood Intervention service. There are fees, however there is a fee waiver system; no family will be refused because of an inability to pay fees.
Lifestart supports the whole family. This includes parent support groups, Sibkidz (a siblings support group) and specific programs for fathers. Other important family members are encouraged to be involved in sessions or playgroups.
Lifestart is a cooperative, and families join and therefore “own” Lifestart. The Board is made up of family and staff members, and each region has its own Parents & Friends group made up of families, assisted by the Area Coordinator.