Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) benefit from early intervention – the earlier, the better. It’s important that you do as much as you can for your child, as soon as you can. But if you’re still reeling from a diagnosis, it can be hard to know where and how to start.
Early intervention refers to doing things as early as possible to address your child’s symptoms. Early intervention for children with ASD is made up of therapies and services.
Therapies (also called interventions) are the programs or sessions aimed at promoting your child’s development.
Services are the places and organisations that offer these therapies. A service might provide one therapy or several types.
Research says that starting intervention as young as possible is most effective in helping the development of children with ASD. You can even get things rolling before having a diagnosis.
For example, problems with communication are a major source of tantrums and other difficult behaviours for children with ASD. If children can’t communicate their needs or understand others, extreme behaviours are a way they can express themselves or gain attention. But if they learn to communicate effectively as early as possible, they won’t need to engage in these behaviours quite so much.
Another reason for starting early is that it can help children with early brain development – which has been linked to possible causes of ASD.
What to look for in an early intervention
All therapies and services for children with ASD should be family focused, well structured and based on good evidence.
Here is a list of characteristics to look for when choosing an early intervention. The more of these characteristics you find in a service the better – not all interventions will do all these things. Evidence tells us that these are the elements that best support children with an ASD.
- includes family members so they can work alongside the professionals and learn how to help their child
- is flexible – it can be offered at home as well as in other settings such as kindergartens and early intervention centres
- is designed for children with ASD
- has staff who are specially trained in the intervention and services they provide
- develops an individual plan for each child and the plan is reviewed regularly
- monitors each child’s progress with regular assessments
- is highly structured, well organised, regular and predictable
- focuses on developing attention, compliance, imitation, language and social skills
- provides a supportive learning environment – your child feels comfortable and supported
- includes strategies to help your child learn new skills and use them in different settings (sometimes called ‘generalising’ skills)
- has an approach to reducing difficult behaviour that involves identifying what the ‘purpose’ of a behaviour is, and then teaching more appropriate alternative behaviours to replace difficult ones
- prepares and supports children for the move to school
- provides families with support and guidance
- enables contact between the child with ASD and typically developing children (ideally of the same age).
You can print out a checklist of these characteristics of a good early intervention service (PDF doc size: 39kb).
Other things to consider
Research shows that intensive early intervention for children with ASD is most effective. It’s not just about the hours, though – it’s also about the quality of those hours and how the therapy engages your child.
It can be scary when you first find out what an early intervention therapy or service costs in time and money. Still, try not to panic. Focus on what you want for your child and your family. Learn all you can about the available options. How will they help your child? What will they cost in dollars and time? What funding is available to help cover these costs?
Different children with ASD respond in different ways to interventions, so no single program will suit all children and their families.
A good intervention involves regular assessment of your child to ensure progress is being made. The gains might be small at first, but it all adds up. If no gain is being made, the intervention might need to change or be stopped.
Good intervention services see your child as a child first, as part of a whole family and not just a person with autism.
Video Finding and starting early intervention
In this short video, parents talk about finding and starting early intervention for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They share their experiences with interventions and tests. There are many excellent resources and interventions available, but it's important to choose interventions based on scientific evidence.
Over the years I have felt most comfortable with staff that were interested in my son, and not just his autism. These are the positive people that would laugh at his quirky behaviour, praise his achievements, and look for supportive and effective ways to help him learn new skills. And now, as an adult, these are the people that he remembers with affection.
– Amanda, mother of David
Getting started with service providers
To begin with, find out all you can about your options. Three questions will help you get started.
- What did the professionals who diagnosed your child recommend? The assessment or diagnosis should provide you with an understanding of your child’s current skills and possible gaps in skills or development. It should also include a treatment plan you can take to service providers.
- What relevant service providers can be found in your area? Get a list of local services from your autism advisor. Or use our Autism Services Pathfinder to find out what’s available.
- What do you know about the interventions they offer? Learn more about types of interventions.
Choosing trustworthy service providers
The most important thing to look for is the credentials of a service and its key providers or employees. Here are some pointers to help you establish the credentials of a service:
- Is the service on the Australian Government’s Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) Early Intervention Provider Panel? Services on this panel have been evaluated by the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA) and meet well-established standards of best practice.
- Does the service receive state or federal government funding? Not all qualified services have applied to be on the HCWA Early Intervention Provider Panel. So check to see whether the service receives any direct government funding. Government-funded services will have a Funding and Services Agreement, which means they are monitored for accountability and performance.
- Do the service’s staff members have professional registration and/or appropriate training? You could check with professional associations such as the Australian Psychological Society or Speech Pathology Australia. These associations have lists of members and their particular areas of expertise.
- Is the service professionally linked with other well-established services? For example, services associated with universities and hospitals are usually well researched and regulated.
Other things to consider
There are other good services that are not funded or listed by government (such as some home-based programs). They are usually funded by fees and fundraising of their own. This does not mean they should be avoided, but the fees can be a strain for some families. If you’re satisfied that the service uses reputable approaches, you need to consider the impact of the service’s cost for your family – in terms of time and money.
Families may be eligible for up to $12 000 in government funding to help pay for services on the Provider Panel. Contact an Autism Advisor for details.
Each state and territory government offers a range of early intervention funding. This funding is either made directly to services, or provided as funding packages for families to cover certain expenses.
How to find out more
If you need more information about a service you’re considering, try the following.
- Contact your state or territory autism association. It will have good information on reputable and trustworthy services in your area and can let you know about funding to your local services. It will also be able to put you in touch with your local autism advisor. Autism advisors can’t recommend a therapy or service, but can give you more information and advice. They can let you know how to register for an Early Days face-to-face workshop on ASD and early intervention options.
- For more information about ASD and how to support your child’s early development, you could take part in an Early Days online workshop.
- Find out how and whether the intervention has been tested. Check what the research shows about results achieved by the intervention or service. When you’re looking at research, remember that the most reliable research will be done using a scientific approach. You can usually rely on research carried out at universities, hospitals and research institutes and published in reputable journals.