Why is early intervention so important?
By Seana Smith, co-author of the Australian Autism Handbook, Edition 1
Early intervention means getting started with therapeutic interventions for a child, as soon as possible. For some children this might mean starting at 12 months old, for others it might be 5 years old. The main thing is to get started as soon as issues with development are noticed.
Why? Because early brain development is crucial
The first three years of a child’s life are the most important for future development. It is during these early years that the brain’s neural circuits are at their most flexible and adaptable. In typical child development, the changes made during these first few years are phenomenal, with rapid growth across all areas.
The brains of children with disabilities are also able to develop faster and more flexibly when they are very young and, although they may need more assistance, it is vital they are encouraged to develop as fully as possible. The early years are when new neural connections can be made the most rapidly in all children.
The importance of avoiding bad habits developing
As well as it being vital for children to use this rapid period of brain development to learn new skills, it is also crucial to ensure children do not become set in patterns of distress which can have a negative impact on behavior and thus on learning too.
Difficulties with communication are a core feature of autism spectrum disorder and can cause immense frustration for the child. One of the most important elements of early intervention is to start effective communication between child, family and carers. This can ease the daily life of the entire family with great benefits for both mental and physical health.
How much early intervention is needed?
Large amounts of good quality research has clearly shown that children who receive effective early intervention improve their outcomes throughout life. With autism spectrum disorder this means not only receiving the right sort of individualized therapies designed to improve that particular child’s own deficits but also the right amount of early intervention. With autism, the more intervention the better. The Australian Government’s own recommendations suggest at least 20 hours of autism specific early intervention are needed to achieve the best outcomes.
How early is too early?
There is no too early! Some siblings of children on the spectrum start early intervention with their families as soon as they are born, with an emphasis on social interaction. Early intervention for communication and speech can start before a baby is one year old.
Early intervention is often play-based and typical children are playing a great deal of the time. So there is no need for concern that a child is being forced to sit still and learn unnaturally when they are very young.
So, what if you missed the early intervention boat?
Some families can be devastated to learn of the importance of brain development during the first three years of life, especially if their children are diagnosed later than this. However, all is never lost. Whilst it used to be believed that brain development was very different in older children, we now know that the brain is changeable throughout life. The scientific term is ‘neuroplasticity,’ a relatively recent area of study.
Older children and adults can learn new things, perhaps not just as quickly as young children, however great strides can be made in development at any age. And that’s for all people, kids and adults with no disability can grow and change as can their peers with a diagnosis.
So do not delay! Definitely do not wait for a diagnosis.
There is no need to have a full and confirmed diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder before starting early intervention. Whatever red flags have raised concerns can start to be dealt with, for example, some children’s speech is slow to develop and that is their first early warning sign of autism. It is a good idea to start working with a speech pathologist even whilst waiting for other professionals to help assess the child. As a parent, you too are about to start learning new things. So jump onto the Rockmelon App and start reading our Parent Skills section.
A few notes on early intervention in general
Early intervention is used as an umbrella term to cover all sorts of specialist support given to children with additional needs in their early years. Some centres are called early intervention centres, this may mean that they only look after the needs of children who have not yet started school.
Early intervention therapies for ASD generally include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and autism specific therapies like ABA.
Seana Smith is a Scottish-born writer, blogger, autism parent and co-author of the first edition of the ‘Australian Autism Handbook’.