The youngest patients can have some of the most serious neurological and behavioural issues.
In the Comox Valley, an early-intervention pilot program called Pathways to Healing treats only children up to the age of six, dealing with developmental and emotional challenges linked to trauma or neglect.
The program has operated since April 2016, helped by a three-year funding commitment from the Children’s Health Foundation of Vancouver Island.
Program director Jan Ference said she was determined to establish Pathways to Healing because of the huge need she saw.
“It was a personal passion of mine,” she said. “Finally the systems are starting to understand that if you put your money in early intervention, you actually will save buckets of money down the road and the outcomes for kids and families can be permanently changed, as opposed to the Band-Aid approach.”
Treatment often revolves around determining the age where the child had the greatest difficulty, and returning him or her to that time.
“You try and go back and recreate those activities that you would normally do with a much younger child,” Ference said.
A child who had a problematic environment as an infant might not have had enough rocking, for example, or enough language development from hearing people talk, she said. A range of treatments can be used.
“The brain loves rhythm and patterns and repetition, so music, animal therapy, art therapy – all of those things are way better than talk therapy.”
The activity has to be enjoyable for the child, Ference said, so not everything works.
“Traditional treatment like therapy is great when somebody is calm and stable.”
One compelling case involved a baby who has born addicted to drugs and appeared to be blind, but wasn’t, Ference said.
“The connection between the part of your brain that actually processes your eyesight and the actual optical function of your eye, those pathways in the brain weren’t even connected yet,” Ference said. “That’s how delayed this baby was.
“With the right intervention, the baby was [treated] and the baby made massive headway with the right caregiving, and is now adopted and living in Chilliwack.”
She said there is a lot of value in dealing with children’s neurological issues before they hit the school system.
“There’s so much that we can do.”
Abuse and the lack of consistent caregiving can “wire” a child’s brain to cause problems with behaviour, Ference said, but there can be other factors.
“Really, there’s the stress that could occur in pregnancy, not just drug and alcohol which is what people always try and pin it on,” she said. “There’s women living in extreme poverty or domestic violence or just living in chaos where they are afraid.”
To determine how a child is doing, Ference does an assessment that produces a report called a “brain map.”
“It’s really to try and figure out what the experience of a child was,” she said.
“It basically gives a basic, layman’s understanding of where the child is at, and what parts of their brain are wired and are age-typical and what parts of the brain are underdeveloped.
“And then that drives the treatment plan.”
Relationship and trust issues are often at the forefront.
She said dealing with children in the crucial early years can help them avoid the need for treatment later on.
“It’s kind of like pay now or pay forever,” Ference said.
Support for the program has also come from the Ministry of Children and Family Development, the Comox Valley Child Development Association and Island Health.