Early intervention: what is it?
Early intervention is specialised support for children with disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delay and other additional needs. Early intervention should happen as soon as possible after a child’s needs are identified. It might include therapies, education and other supports.
You’ll also hear the terms early childhood intervention and early childhood early intervention. These refer to intervention 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 with disability, ASD, developmental delay or other additional needs. It can help children 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 intervention 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, interventions can be targeted to address your child’s and family’s specific needs.
Early intervention often focuses on four key areas of children’s development:
- physical development – that is, children’s bodies and brains
- cognitive development – that is, children’s thinking and learning
- behavioural development – that is, children’s behaviour and how it’s affected by physical and cognitive development
- social and emotional development – that is, children’s ability to form relationships and cope with emotions.
Different 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 motor skills like balance, sitting, crawling and walking.
- Speech therapy can help with speech, language, eating and drinking skills like chewing, sucking and swallowing.
- Psychological therapy can help with forming relationships, coping with emotions and learning behaviours and 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 alternative therapies like art therapy or non-traditional treatments like acupuncture or homeopathy. If you’re interested in alternative interventions, 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 has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), our Parent Guide to ASD Therapies offers reliable information about a wide range of therapies and interventions. You can get an overview of a therapy, what research says about it and the approximate time and costs involved.
Getting started on early intervention for your child with additional needs
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a good place to start with early intervention.
If your child is aged 0-6 years and you’re worried about his development, you don’t need a diagnosis to get early childhood early intervention support from the NDIS.
You’ll meet with an NDIS early childhood partner to talk about your concerns, your child’s needs and goals, and the support the NDIS can offer.
If your child is aged seven years or older, he’ll need a diagnosis to access NDIS support.
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.
Getting a diagnosis to guide early intervention for children with additional needs
A diagnosis will you help you choose the right early intervention for your child with disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delay or other additional needs.
If your child’s disability or developmental delay showed up at birth or soon after, you might already be well along this path. But if you don’t have a diagnosis and you’re concerned about your child, you can ask your GP for a referral to a paediatrician.
The paediatrician 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 treatment plan designed to work on the delays in your child’s skills and 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 be able to 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 intervention or therapy, 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 intervention or for something new.