The term “early intervention” is widely discussed these days. It’s described by the CDC as “services and supports that are available to babies and young children with developmental delays and disabilities and their families, typically birth to age 3”.
As a parent of a child with Asperger’s, I know how overwhelming it can be when considering whether to take action. Parents may wonder if we are seeing “normal” variations in development, or if our child is experiencing delays due to some underlying condition.
Here are early signs of autism, and then some ideas to consider if you suspect your child may need some support!
Detecting Signs of Autism
Some children meet all their milestones on time, and some children take a little longer to learn basic skills.
One of the main characteristics of autism is differences in how a child interacts with the environment, socializes with others, and processes sensory information. We, as parents, are key players because we have a front-row seat to how our child is developing.
This gives us a chance to notice patterns of behavior, difficulties or challenges, and how our child interacts with others.
Often, parents can notice early indications of this condition before a child reaches their first birthday, although it is usually more observable by age 2 or 3.
By getting support as early as possible, you can help your child master essential milestones during important windows of development.
Early intervention aims to help babies and toddlers practice important skills, listed below:
- Physical Abilities:
- Climbs well
- Runs easily
- Pedals a tricycle (3-wheel bike)
- Walks up and downstairs, one foot on each step
- Feeding self
- Getting dressed
Some babies and toddlers on the spectrum have delays in crawling and walking, occasionally skipping crawling altogether. (We often talked about how my son went straight from barely crawling to running!)
While this may not seem like a problem, skipping the crawling stage can be an indicator of a glitch in neurological development.
- Cognitive Abilities: Some learning, thinking, problem-solving activities include:
- Playing make-believe with dolls, animals, and people
- Completing puzzles with 3 or 4 pieces
- Understanding what “two” means
- Copy circle with pencil or crayon
- Turning book pages one at a time
- Playing with toys that have gears, knobs, wheels
Often children on the spectrum can be more interested in repetitive, “stimming” behaviors, such as lining up toys, watching the movement of windshield wipers or fans, instead of engaging in more meaningful play.
- Communicative Abilities:
- Follows instructions with 2 or 3 steps
- Can name most familiar things
- Understands words like “in,” “on,” and “under
- Says words like “I,” “me,” “we,” and “you” and some plurals (cars, dogs, cats)
- Talks well enough for strangers to understand most of the time
- Carries on a conversation using 2 to 3 sentences
Speech abilities vary widely on the spectrum. Some children are nonverbal from an early age, and some are extremely verbal.
Pronoun confusion (knowing when to use you vs. me) is common, as well as echolalia, in which the child repeats a question rather than answering it.
All speech and language specialists agree that speech always progresses; speech that stops progressing is almost always a sign of something more.
- Social/emotional Abilities: It’s important to observe how your child interacts with other family members as well as children his/her age. Some typical skills are:
- Copies adults and friends
- Shows affection for friends without prompting
- Takes turns in games
- Shows concern for crying friend
- Understands the idea of “mine” and “his” or “hers”
- Shows a wide range of emotions
- Separates easily from mom and dad
All children can vary widely in how he/she shows affection and prefers to play.
However, if a child consistently doesn’t want to play with other children or with toys, avoids eye contact, and has trouble engaging in play with others, it’s worth a closer look.
Reasons Why Early Intervention for a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder Is a Game Changer
- Early Identification is getting easier
With rising autism rates in the past few decades, professionals, pediatricians, and parents have been getting better at recognizing early signs of developmental disorders. Most agree the earlier intervention can begin, the better.
The “wait and see” approach is quickly becoming outdated as diagnosis and support systems become more sophisticated.
- Build a strong foundation
Early intervention can improve social and communication skills during early years which has the potential to significantly help improve the child as they grow older when social and language skills become more complex and demanding.
- Brain Plasticity is on your side!
Our brains change with experience, especially when we’re younger! The neural connections in a baby’s brain are most malleable in the first three years of life.
Learning and behavior depend on these neural circuits and, over time, these connections become harder to change.
Some science facts: Brain processing speed is aided by a process called myelination. Myelin is a fatty substance that insulates axons much like the plastic sheath on a power cable, increasing the speed of electrical transmission.
This coating process begins around birth and is most rapid in the first 2 years. When your child consistently practices new skills, the nerves responsible for those skills become reinforced.
Practicing skills over time causes those neural pathways to work better in unison.
- Learn and practice social skills early
Social skills are one of the most important things your child will need when starting school!
These include taking turns, waiting his/her turn, self-control, and how to be part of a group.
Important social skills can be reinforced early, giving your child the opportunity for a lot of practice before going into a school environment.
- Improve language skills
The ability to process language and communicate is one of the most important things to support in the early years.
It will help your child engage with others, be able to express feelings of happiness and frustration, and comprehend their home and school environment.
Early intervention is crucial for receptive and expressive language skills. The earlier intervention begins, the greater the chance a nonverbal child with autism is likely to gain speech skills.
Researchers have found that children who are completely nonverbal who begin intervention in the early preschool years are far more likely to become verbal than children who begin intervention over the age of 5.
- Improve cognitive abilities
Learning, thinking, and problem-solving are critical skills your child will need at all levels of development.
Areas of weakness can be targeted through early intervention strategies involving play, games, and other fun activities.
Helping your child be a more effective learner with make them more confident!
- Teach self-regulation strategies
Children on the spectrum can have trouble with self-regulation: staying calm, dealing with frustration, recognizing the size of a problem, and appropriate reactions.
They can be taught how to identify mood changes at an early age, as well as appropriate ways of dealing with strong feelings.
Parents can practice this consistently throughout the day to help your child become more emotionally balanced.
- Improve the future school experience
The goal of special education is to place each child in the least restrictive environment.
Early intervention can increase the chance for your child to be included in regular education classrooms by strengthening their learning, behavioral, emotional, and communicative skills.
- Early interventions are less expensive
By starting as early as possible, research shows that intervention can be effective for as little as only one hour per week.
Even more importantly, parents should be engaged as active participants.
This ensures they understand their child’s strengths and weaknesses, have effective strategies to support their child, and can monitor progress daily.
- Enhance parent’s mental health
Early intervention can provide you, as a parent, with skills you can use to tackle symptoms early. This will build your confidence as a parent, give you a sense of control, and help strengthen your connection with your child!
Early intervention is key in helping a child on the spectrum make a huge difference in their overall quality of life.
If you have any concerns about your child’s milestones or are just unsure what exactly you should be looking for, talk to your pediatrician.
If your child is over the age of three and you are just noticing some of these things, don’t worry! Getting help at any stage of development is always helpful.
Children’s brains are constantly growing and changing. Educate yourself, find a good support team, and remember: it’s only going to get better!