News and Notes from The Johnson Center

Q & A: Why is early intervention important?

JCCHD | Thu, August 30, 2012 | [Applied Behavior Analysis][Autism Treatment][Assessment Corner][Q and A ]

One of the first things parents of children with developmental delays may hear about is early intervention. Often services for younger children will initially be provided by the local ECI (Early Childhood Intervention) agency. When researching interventions, parents often come across research on Applied Behavioral Analysis - ABA.  This research says children with an ASD diagnosis need intensive, early behavioral intervention in order to have a chance to return to a normal developmental trajectory.

While the principles of brain plasticity, development, and healing a child before more issues are present make sense to most, this “magic” window of early development can be confusing.  It often inspires panic in parents, as they rush to get through that window in time. But there are some fairly simple explanations about how this works, why this window is important, and what it may mean for an older child.

Developmental Tasks Dr. Todd Risley, a highly respected researcher, once explained it well. If you were to look at the skills of an average two-year-old and compare them to the skills of a two-year-old with an ASD, the differences would be relatively small.  However, if you compared ten-year-olds (without intervention), the gap in skill levels would most likely be significantly larger.  Starting intervention at age ten puts you at a significant disadvantage compared to starting with a two-year-old, as you have many more skills to teach and patterns of learning to establish.

A Day in the Life of a Toddler Dr. Risley also explained the magic of the 40-hour-a-week ABA program that is often touted as best practice for young children with an ASD. Forty hours may seem arbitrary—and difficult to attain—but again, there is no magic. If you look at the typical daily routine of naps and sleep, feeding, soothing, and bathing of a two to three year old child, he or she has about 40 hours a week available to learn and interact with other people. Thus, early intervention takes advantage of every available moment in order to give a child the skills and ability to learn that they need to catch up with their typically developing peers. The goal is to place them on the same learning trajectory so that the gap in skills and abilities does not continue to grow larger as they grow older.

Clearly you can begin appropriate intervention at any age and make a significant difference. Improving physical health and teaching skills can make a big difference at any age. But doing so at a young age maximizes the opportunity to put a child on the same learning path as their peers, and gives them the maximum opportunity to reach their fullest potential.

The challenges are great. First, we must ensure children have access to appropriate diagnostics at a young age so that parents know which services their child needs. Second, we must convince parents that their child needs intensive services at a time when the delays and deficits may seem slight and easily overcome. And third, we must empower families to access these challenging, yet necessary, services for their young child.

Whatever the age, appropriate nutritional, medical, behavioral, and educational services can make a big difference, and access to appropriate, early intervention may provide significant benefit.