VKC TRIAD’s Families First Program celebrates 10 years of serving families of children with autism

Happy family

The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Treatment & Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders (VKC TRIAD) has provided 10 years of free monthly workshops for caregivers of young children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) through its Families First Program—a milestone worth celebrating.

Video highlights from the 10 Year Celebration

TRIAD Families First 10-Year Celebration from TRIAD on Vimeo.

In 2008, TRIAD began offering free monthly workshops thanks to a founding gift given by philanthropists Ann and Monroe Carell, Jr. Held on Saturday mornings at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center on Vanderbilt’s Peabody campus, these workshops provide caregivers with practical tools to address common goals for their child following an autism diagnosis.

The purpose of the workshops is twofold: to empower caregivers with strategies to capitalize on their child’s strengths in helping their child meet his or her full potential, and to provide a network of support.

In 10 years, Families First has grown exponentially, with more than 4,000 in attendance across 109 counties and 9 states since its inception. What was once a service available only for families who were able to travel to Nashville to attend, Families First now offers live online resources and livestreaming capabilities for families beyond Middle Tennessee.

Workshops cover topics of practical value to families, including addressing challenges with behavior, toilet training, sleep, mealtime, community outings, and developing communication, social, play, self-help, and safety skills. Families First provides families with free child care by staff and student volunteers. This allows families to attend who may not feel comfortable with or cannot afford to leave their children with others.

The Families First Program is led by TRIAD clinical psychologist Whitney Loring, Psy.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. Loring and other TRIAD staff facilitate each workshop and have seen the program change over the years, but the mission remains the same.

Whitney Loring, Psy.D.

Whitney Loring, Psy.D.

“We know from research that early intervention is key—and training parents and other caregivers is an essential component,” said Loring. “When a child is diagnosed with ASD, caregivers often report feeling overwhelmed and frustrated at the task of securing services. These feelings may stem from lack of funding or insurance coverage for these services, an insufficient number of specialized providers, a waitlist for available services, and intervention models that do not incorporate caregivers in meaningful ways. Families First focuses on equipping caregivers with practical tools to support their child, to provide resources to more easily apply strategy and planning ideas, and to give caregivers an opportunity to meet other caregivers with similar questions or concerns.”

As interest in Families First grew over the years, Loring and VKC TRIAD applied the increasing use of telehealth and online learning to their curricula by creating online training modules, available 24/7 to anyone with an internet connection.

Soon after, Families First began livestreaming the monthly workshops. This resource expanded their attendance statewide, regionally, and nationally. Families can connect via livestream technology from nine remote sites across the country. Some of these remote locations are situated in more rural, lower-resource, and/or underserved areas where there is little to no access to autism services. Each livestream site has a professional contact to help individualize the information for their respective communities and individual participants. Livestream site participants also receive the same hands-on, make-it-take-it materials distributed at the Nashville workshop.

The program continues to grow, facilitating “train the trainer” programming with selected partners such as the Tennessee Early Intervention System (TEIS), VKC Tennessee Disability Pathfinder, and even providers in Trinidad.

“The goals of Families First are rooted in an effort to achieve inclusive communities, both for young children with autism spectrum disorder and their families, by providing practical strategies to promote successful home routines and community outings,” Loring said. “By promoting such routines and activities at a young age, the ultimate goal is to help set young children with ASD on a trajectory of meaningful inclusion throughout their childhood and adulthood.”

As Families First moved closer to reaching the decade mark, coordinators knew they had to celebrate the momentous occasion with a huge party! VKC TRIAD invited past and present Families First participants and the entire community to the Families First 10-Year Celebration, held on Sept. 8. Attendees enjoyed games, activities for all ages, face painting, balloon animals, live music and performances, and food trucks. Representatives from TRIAD Community Partners such as the Nashville Ballet, Frist Art Museum, Nashville Zoo, Country Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville Children’s Theatre were on hand at themed activity stations to share details of inclusive activities co-developed with TRIAD. And with all that fun, staff also made sure to provide autism-friendly accommodations such as visual schedules, social stories, and a quiet room.

“We estimated 250 to 300 people in attendance, and it was a wonderful event,” said Loring. “We were so excited to be able to spend time celebrating with everyone who has been so instrumental in Families First over the last 10 years and to have a day where we could just have fun together! During and after the event, we have heard from several families how much fun they had and how much they appreciated having an event that felt so catered to their needs.”

So what’s next for Families First in the next 10 years and beyond?

“We are excited to continue to provide our live workshops while identifying more ways to reach families through online learning and through expanding to new livestream locations across the region,” said Loring. “We will continue to present on our most popular topics while creating at least one new workshop a year based on the feedback we receive from our families.

“For those families who have a child newly diagnosed with autism, we want them to know that they are welcome to take part in whatever way they feel comfortable, whether it be by starting with some online modules or attending a live workshop, either to collect information or to connect with other families,” she continued. “Regardless of how you are involved, we want to do whatever we can to help your child use his or her strengths to meet their full potential and to help you see that you are not alone.”

To learn more about the Families First Program, visit the Families First webpage or contact Whitney Loring at whitney.a.loring@vumc.org. For more information about autism services offered through VKC TRIAD, call the Vanderbilt Autism Resource Line at (615) 322-7565.

Elizabeth Turner is VKC associate program manager of Communication and Dissemination.

Photos from the Families First 10-Year Anniversary

Photos from the Families First 10-Year Anniversary

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