What is early intervention?
Early intervention means doing things as early as possible to work on your child’s developmental, health and support needs.
Early intervention services give specialised support to children and families in the early years (from birth to school entry). This support includes special education, therapy, counselling, service planning and help getting services such as kindergarten and child care.
You can use early intervention services as well as services available to all children, such as maternal and child health services, kindergarten, community health centres, regional parenting services, child care services, play groups and occasional care.
Research says that starting intervention as young as possible is most effective in supporting the development of children with disability.
Therapies and services
Early intervention for children with a disability is made up of therapies and services.
Therapies – or 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.
Your child can get early intervention therapies and services in many ways, including at home, home via video conferencing, child care and kindergarten or in a specialist setting.
Why diagnosis is important
Early intervention works best when it’s targeted at your child’s individual needs. For this to happen, you need a diagnosis, which says what disability your child has.
Once you have a diagnosis, your child’s specialist or health provider can suggest which early intervention therapy or service might be best for your child. Depending on the needs of your child and family, early intervention might involve a therapist working with your child one on one, a therapist working together with you and your child, or a therapist working in a group session with other children.
If you don’t have a diagnosis, or can’t get one, that’s still OK. A paediatrician might be able to say that your child is slow in reaching developmental milestones in more than one area, such as speech or mobility, because of developmental delay. Then you can work out which early interventions will best target your child’s delays.
Types of early intervention
Many children with a disability can benefit from some type of early intervention (or therapy). For example:
Occupational therapy can help with fine motor skills, play and self-help skills such as dressing and toileting.
Physiotherapy can help with motor skills such as balance, sitting, crawling and walking.
Speech therapy can help with speech, language, eating and drinking skills.
You can get these services through community health centres, hospitals, specialist disability services or early intervention services. Your GP, paediatrician or other parents can also tell you about private therapists.
Early intervention often combines specialist support and therapies. You might end up using some government-funded services as well as community service organisations and private therapists.
There are also early intervention therapies that provide specialised support for specific disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and vision impairment.
Some families also look into alternative therapies. You should research these carefully to find out what the research says about the therapy and the time and costs involved.
What to look for in an early intervention
All therapies and services for children with disability should be family focused, well structured and based on good evidence.
Here is a list of characteristics to look for when you’re choosing an early intervention. The more of these characteristics you find in a service, the better – but not all interventions will do all these things. Evidence tells us that these are the elements that best support children with disability.
A good early intervention:
- includes you and other family members so you can work alongside the professionals and learn how to help your child
- is flexible – it can be offered in your home as well as in other settings such as kindergartens and early intervention centres
- is specially designed for children with disability
- has staff who are specially trained in the intervention and services they provide
- develops an individual plan for your child and reviews the plan regularly
- tracks your child’s progress with regular assessments
- is highly structured, well organised, regular and predictable
- focuses on developing specific 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
- tries to reduce your child’s difficult behaviour by working out what the ‘purpose’ of the behaviour is and then teaching your child more appropriate behaviour
- prepares and supports your child for the move to school
- provides your family with support and guidance
- finds ways of getting your child with disability together with typically developing children (ideally of the same age).
You can print out a checklist of these characteristics of a good early intervention service.
Good intervention services see your child as a child first, as part of a whole family and not just a child with a disability.
Other things to consider
Research shows that intensive early intervention for children with disability is most effective. It’s not just about the number of hours, though – it’s also about the quality of those hours and how the therapy engages your child.
Different children respond in different ways to interventions, so no single program will suit all children and their families. 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?
There are good services that aren’t funded or listed by government (for example, some home-based programs). These are usually funded by fees and fundraising. This doesn’t mean they should be avoided, but the costs can be a strain for some 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 you think your child isn’t making progress, you might need to change or stop the intervention.
Federal Government contacts
Better Start for Children with Disability initiative
Helping Children with Autism initiative
State and territory government contacts
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
Parent Line NSW
Phone: 1300 1300 52 (24 hours)
NT Department of Education and Training, Student Services Division Early Childhood Intervention (ECI)
Queensland Department of Communities (Disability and Community Care Services) Family and Early Childhood Services
Phone: 1800 177 120
TTY: 1800 010 222
SA Children’s Centres for Early Childhood Development and Parenting
Tasmania Department of Health and Human Services Disability Services
Victoria Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD) Early Childhood Intervention Services (ECIS)
DEECD Central Office phone: (03) 9637 2000
Phone: 9426 9200
TTY: 9426 9315
Freecall: 1800 998 214
Early Childhood Intervention Australia (ECIA) contacts
Australian Capital Territory
New South Wales
Contact ECIA (NT) through ECIA (NSW):
Therapy provider contacts
Services and support for disability
This video is available in different languages
In this short video, disability experts talk about how to get information about disability services and where to start. They also discuss funding, what makes a good service provider and different types of respite care. They say the best thing you can do to support your child is look after yourself. Parents talk about respite care and counselling.