Early intervention for autism spectrum disorder

Early intervention refers to doing things as early as possible to work on your child’s autism spectrum disorder (ASD) characteristics. Early intervention for children with ASD is made up of therapies or interventions and services.

Therapies (also called interventions) are the programs or sessions aimed at helping your child’s development.

Services are the places and organisations that offer these therapies. A service might offer one therapy or several types of therapies.

Starting intervention as young as possible is most effective in helping the development of children with ASD. You can even get things started before your child has a formal diagnosis.

For example, problems with communication are a big cause of tantrums and other difficult behaviour for children with ASD. If children can’t communicate their needs or understand others, they express themselves or get attention with difficult behaviour. But if they learn to communicate effectively as early as possible, they won’t need to behave like this quite so much.

Another reason for starting early is that it can help children with early brain development – the brains of children with ASD develop differently from their peers.

People living in National Disability Insurance Scheme roll out areas have different intervention and support options from those outside the roll out areas. If you live in a roll out area, your child will get early intervention through the NDIS.

What to look for in an early intervention for autism spectrum disorder

All therapies and services for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) should be family centred, well structured and based on good evidence.

Here’s a list of things to look for when choosing an early intervention. The more of these things you find in a service the better, but not all interventions will do all these things.

The intervention or service:

  • includes family members so you can work alongside the professionals and learn how to help your child
  • is flexible – it can be offered at home as well as in other settings like kindergartens and early intervention centres
  • provides your family with support and guidance.

The intervention or service:

  • 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
  • monitors your child’s progress with regular assessments
  • is highly structured, well organised, regular and predictable
  • provides a supportive learning environment – your child feels comfortable and supported
  • prepares and supports your child for the move to school
  • enables contact between your child and typically developing children (ideally of the same age).

The intervention or service:

  • is designed for children with ASD
  • focuses on developing attention, communication, listening, imitation, language and social skills
  • includes strategies to help your child learn new skills and use them in different settings (sometimes called ‘generalising’ skills)
  • identifies what the ‘purpose’ of a difficult behaviour is, and teaches your child more appropriate alternative behaviour to replace it.

You can print out a checklist of these characteristics of a good early intervention service (PDF: 39kb).

Other things to consider
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. Instead try to 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.

Over the years I have felt most comfortable with staff who 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 that he’s an adult, these are the people who he remembers with affection.
– Amanda, mother of David

Getting started with early intervention service providers

To begin with, find out all you can about your early intervention options. Three questions will help you get started:

  • What did the professionals who diagnosed your child recommend? The assessment or diagnosis should help you understand 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 are in your area? You can get a list of local services from your autism advisor.
  • What do you know about the interventions these service providers offer? Learn more about types of interventions.

Choosing trustworthy early intervention 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 Social Services (DSS) and meet well-established standards of best practice.
  • Does the service get state or Australian Government funding? Not all qualified services have applied to be on the HCWA Early Intervention Provider Panel. So check to see whether the service gets any direct government funding. Government-funded services have a Funding and Services Agreement, which means their performance is checked regularly.
  • Do the service’s staff members have professional registration and/or appropriate training? You could check with professional associations like the Australian Psychological Society or Speech Pathology Australia. These associations have lists of members and their particular areas of expertise. Also, all allied health professionals must be registered with the Australian Government to practise. You can check a therapist’s details by visiting the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
  • 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. This includes some home-based programs. They’re usually funded by fees and fundraising of their own.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid them, but the fees can be a strain for some families. If you’re satisfied that the service uses reputable approaches, consider the impact of the service’s cost for your family in terms of time and money.

Families of children aged 0-6 years might be able to get up to $12 000 in government funding through the HCWA package to help pay for services on the Provider Panel.

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 about early intervention

If you need more information about a service you’re considering, try the following:

  • Contact your state or territory autism association, which can put you in touch with your local autism advisor. Autism advisors can’t recommend a therapy or service, but they can give you more information and advice.
  • For more information about autism spectrum disorder (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.