Associate Professor Jan Matthews (Psychologist, Parenting Research Centre): Early intervention starts with early identification of what the issues and concerns are for the child. And it’s putting in place programs and services that will meet the needs of the child in a timely way. But also taking into account what the family requires, to support this child.
Christine Cameron, (Psychologist, Parenting Research Centre): Early childhood intervention in Australia is quite a big service sector. It’s around the sorts of services that are useful to children and to families in those early years – so, zero up to school entry. It might involve consultations perhaps with a range of professionals. You might see a psychologist, a speech therapist, an occupational therapist. Lots of teachers are involved in early intervention. And they will be working with you to talk about what your concern about your child’s development is, and things you would like your child to be learning, and what you would like some help with. With a little one, it might be helping them learn to sit, so they can then reach for things – something like that – or it might be about communication.
Elizabeth McGarry (CEO, Association for Children with a Disability): Often it will be around having an assessment and then having a discussion around where the child’s trajectory can be and then working on what sort of interventions would help achieve the goals that you might set. Then you create a plan, and then you continue to review that, to see how the child is progressing.
Jan: Early intervention works best when there is a partnership between the family and the service offering the intervention. And what that means is that the parents’ skills, abilities and knowledge about their child are taken into account and come into the mix of intervention strategies that are used. So, when parents can use some of the strategies at home that the child might be learning in the early intervention service then of course that strengthens the effect for the child.
Some interventions work better than others. Evidence is accumulated over years, using a strong scientific method, and practitioners in the field should know what that evidence is, and should be able to share that with parents.
Elizabeth: The professionals who are normally involved in early intervention are speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, psychology, and in some cases some others like music therapy and other ways that can support children in early intervention settings. Sometimes early intervention is provided within a centre, where you would actually take a child to a centre and receive therapy support that you might need. In other circumstances it can be a therapist that can come to your home.
Christine: I think one of the important things about working with a whole lot of professionals is being conscious that it’s the professional’s job to support you and your child – to share with you the specialist knowledge that they have, but to listen to you, your concerns, and the needs of you and your family.
Dona (mother of 5, 1 with Down syndrome): One of the things that I worried about for so long was the physical inability he seemed to have. He resisted doing anything that put weight through his legs, or to move around. If he didn’t have to move around, he would not move around. And he knew that his siblings or somebody would bring him something, and they did. But the early intervention taught me that I had to be a little bit stronger for him. It would be very easy to be – not complacent, that’s not the right word – but let him just lay there and do it in his own time. So with the early intervention, one of the things we did – we called it the Hannibal Lecter – we had to strap him into this kind of standing frame, so that he had to put his weight through his legs. And I was in tears. I still remember that. He was only 2-and-a-half at the time, and we were in tears. And we took pictures of him and now when we can laugh about it: ‘Look Charlie, here’s you in your standing frame.’
But I wouldn’t have done that had I not been pushed by the professionals in early intervention who said ‘This will help him put the weight through his legs.’ So some of those things you wouldn’t think of, and then down the line, yes, he started walking. So it did work. I think the early intervention helped me to just push, do things, challenge him, all of us, in a way that we would not have thought to do.
Christine: We know that, in the first 3 years particularly, children’s experiences influence their brain development. That’s for all children. So it’s important to have lots of positive learning experiences, positive emotional experiences for children in that time.
And that’s why the push to encourage families to seek early intervention services as soon as they possibly can.
Sandra (Mother of 3, 1 with hearing impairment): If you can really take advantage of this window of time we have in early intervention, and really catch up where they’ve missed a step at that point, then as they get older the amount of support they need doesn’t have to be as intense, because they’ve done it all in those early years.
Christine: It’s never too late to start to change things. We know that brain development goes on into early adulthood. So even if your child’s not diagnosed until they’ve starting school, it’s not too late. You’ve done lots of stuff that is really important already. And now you’ll be getting some direction on how to go from here on.
Jan: Choosing an early intervention provider is an active process where parents think about what their child needs and what their goals are, for their child and their family. And then carefully examining what that service has to offer.
Christine: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Take a list of questions into the interview, or the appointment, and don’t leave until you’ve got some response to each of them.
Elizabeth: I guess one of the challenges for families is there’s no one central point to find all this information, so it’s a bit like a treasure hunt, in a way.
Jan: Families find out about early intervention services from a range of sources. The diagnostician – the person who makes the diagnosis – can often give them important information about what early services are available. But there are organisations that are disability-specific, that would have a range of options to share with parents. Local government is also a good source of information, as are state government disability services. Those services can be accessed on the internet or by telephone.
Elizabeth: There’s different types of funding available through the government, for support in early interventions. In some instances, funding is available to the child, and you can then choose what sort of therapist, and where the therapist might be, to suit your needs. With other intervention support, specific services are funded and you need to access them. In some cases there are choices there, but invariably we find there’s more demand than there is availability. So it’s best, in the early stages, when you’re talking to the early intervention managers in each state, to put forward exactly what you are feeling that you need, and to put in the best request that you can, that fits with your family and try and come up with the best outcome.