Early intervention: what is it?
Early intervention is specialised support for children and teenagers with disability, autistic children and teenagers, and children and teenagers with other additional needs.
Early intervention should happen as soon as possible after your child’s needs are identified. It might include therapies, supports, education and so on.
You’ll also hear the terms early childhood intervention and early childhood early intervention. These refer to therapies and supports for children and their families in the early years from birth until children start school.
Early intervention is the best way to support the development and wellbeing of children and teenagers with disability, autistic children and teenagers, and children and teenagers with other additional needs. It can help children and teenagers develop the skills they need to take part in everyday activities. Sometimes children who get early intervention need less or no support as they get older.
How does early intervention work?
To start with, early intervention is usually universal. This means it’s therapies or supports that anyone can get – for example, support and advice from child and family health nurses, paediatricians or GPs.
Then as your child’s specific needs are identified or your child’s condition is diagnosed, early intervention can focus on your child’s and family’s specific needs.
Early intervention often focuses on 4 key areas of children’s development:
- Physical development – this is children’s bodies and brains.
- Cognitive development – this is children’s thinking and learning.
- Behavioural development – this is children’s behaviour and how it’s affected by physical and cognitive development.
- Social and emotional development – this is children’s ability to form relationships and manage emotions.
The therapies used as part of early intervention address these developmental areas in different ways. For example:
- Occupational therapy can help with fine motor skills, play and self-help skills like dressing and toileting.
- Physiotherapy can help with balance, coordination and gross motor skills like sitting, crawling and walking.
- Speech therapy can help with speech, language, and eating and drinking skills like chewing, sucking and swallowing.
- Psychological therapy can help with forming relationships, managing emotions, and developing behaviour, social and other skills.
Children often benefit from a combination of therapies – this is called a multidisciplinary approach. And children often need different therapies or therapy combinations at different stages of their development.
Some families look into complementary and alternative medicine like acupuncture or homeopathy. If you’re interested in alternative therapies, some careful research can help you work out whether the therapy is backed by scientific evidence and worth your time and money.
If your child is autistic, our guide to therapies for autistic children offers reliable information about a wide range of therapies. You can get an overview of a therapy, the research behind it, and the approximate time and costs involved.
Getting started on early intervention
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a good place to start with early intervention.
If your child is aged 0-8 years and you’re worried about their development, you can get support from the NDIS. You’ll meet with an early childhood partner to talk about your concerns, your child’s needs and goals, and the support the NDIS can offer. Your child might get support without becoming an NDIS participant.
If your child is 9 years or older and eligible to join the NDIS, you’ll meet with an NDIA planner or a local area coordination partner to develop an NDIS plan for your child. The plan will include NDIS-funded services and supports like therapies, technologies, equipment or modifications to your home.
The pathways to NDIS support are different for children of different ages, but the focus is the same – giving children quick access to the support they need.
Diagnosis: why it’s important for early intervention
A diagnosis will help you choose the best early intervention for your child with disability, autistic child or child with other additional needs.
If your child’s condition showed up at birth or soon after, you might already have a diagnosis. But if you don’t have a diagnosis and you’re concerned about your child, it’s good to act quickly and talk to your GP or paediatrician.
Your doctor might do a formal assessment of your child. The assessment should give you an understanding of your child’s current skills, as well as delays in your child’s skills and development.
The assessment should include a support plan designed to work on the delays in your child’s development. The paediatrician might say your child needs a particular type of early intervention and give you a referral for early intervention services.
If you don’t have a diagnosis or experts are having trouble reaching a diagnosis, that’s OK. The paediatrician might say that your child is slow in reaching developmental milestones, like speech or mobility, because of developmental delay. You and the paediatrician can use this information to work out which early interventions will best target your child’s delays.
Once your child has finished a course of early intervention, you might need to go back to your paediatrician for a review. Depending on your child’s progress, the paediatrician might send your child for more of the same type of early intervention or for something new.