Early intervention for children with disability, autism or other additional needs

Early intervention: what is it?
Early intervention is specialised support for children with disability, autism or other additional needs including developmental delay.

Early intervention should happen as soon as possible after a 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 with disability, autism or other additional needs including developmental delay. 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 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 – 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.
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, eating and drinking skills like chewing, sucking and swallowing.
Psychological therapy can help with forming relationships, coping with 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.

Diagnosis: why it’s important for early intervention
A diagnosis will you help you choose the best early intervention for your child with disability, autism or other additional needs including developmental delay.

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 treatment 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.