Early Intervention – The Options
If your child is diagnosed with autism when they are very young, then your family has a golden chance to implement an early intervention program.
But please don’t panic if your child is diagnosed at a later age. The brain is ‘plastic’ throughout life and there is always room and hope for positive changes for your child. Many of these early intervention programs can be adapted to older age groups.
Choosing an early intervention program for your child with autism can be a very overwhelming and confusing process. Unlike other areas of childhood health, an autism diagnosis doesn’t
come with a ready-prepared treatment plan and a network of health professionals to help implement it.
In most cases, it is up to parents or carers to do their own research and navigate their way through the multiple available options.
Whatever path you choose, remember the golden rule: intensity matters.
The Australian Government’s 2012 Guidelines for Good Practice recommends 15-25 hours a week of autism-specific early intervention. Sadly, most Australian children currently receive much less than this amount. Yet, it is what experts advise, and what has been proven to provide the best outcomes.
When choosing an early intervention program for your child, there are some important things to consider straight away:
- Does this therapy work? Has it been proven to be effective?
- Will it work for us? Will the therapy suit our own family’s needs?
Finding an early intervention program that works
In 2012, the authors of the Australian Government Good Practice Guidelines noted:
Only a small number of autism treatment programs have direct research evidence supporting their effectiveness, and there is continuing need for further research. Most interventions have not been evaluated adequately and many have not been evaluated at all.
Several years later, the situation is unfortunately not a whole lot better. The following sections describe the best-researched early intervention programs for autism, to help you choose the best approach for your child.
Until recently, families received limited early intervention funding through the Federal Government’s Helping Children with Autism (HCWA) package, which could be used to access services provided by HCWA-registered providers. Now, as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is rolled out throughout the country, most families are transitioning to this scheme. More information on the transition process is available on the Department of Social Services website (linked below).
Parents and carers should be aware that not all service providers (government-approved or otherwise) will necessarily bring the same level of transparency, respect and rigour to the programs they deliver. It’s important that you do your research, ask questions and ensure the answers you’re receiving meet all of your requirements.
You can also read more about evidence-based interventions and treatments versus non evidence- based approaches.
But most programs still lack intensity
There’s no getting around it — intensive early intervention is expensive. For it to be effective the therapist:child ratio should ideally be 1:1 but at minimum 1:3. These teachers, therapists, and child-care personnel should be specifically trained in working with children with autism, have knowledge and skills required for their special needs, and another important attribute:
… the most important quality that teachers and therapists should have, which transcends academic qualifications, is the ability to engage your child. The best therapists can look past the autism symptoms and see the child within; they will know how to laugh and play and have fun, but also how to impose discipline in a kind and consistent manner. Your child will really enjoy being with these people and learn best with them…
Quote from The Complete Autism Handbook
Unfortunately, many providers are still not offering families anywhere near the recommended 20 hours a week of high quality, autism-specific early intervention. Ensure that you thoroughly research the effectiveness of a program before making your decision and committing money to it.
Previously, the cost of intensive early intervention meant it was beyond the reach of many Australian families. It was hoped that the introduction of the NDIS would mean that all young children with autism would be able to access to fully-funded early intervention programs. Regrettably, this is not proving to be the case, with many families still finding they have to fight for their entitlements.
Early Intervention Transition to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) – Frequently Asked Questions – Department of Social Services
Parent guide to therapies – Raising Children Network
Types of Interventions for children with ASD – Raising Children Network
Early Interventions for children with ASD: Getting Started – Raising Children Network
Types of autism interventions, treatments and therapies – Research Autism