Research shows that early diagnosis of and interventions for autism are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills.1,2,3,4,5 Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can sometimes be diagnosed in children before they are 2 years of age. Some children with ASD whose development seems typical up to that point begin to regress just before or sometime during age 2 years.6
Early intervention programs often include:
- Family training
- Speech therapy
- Hearing impairment services
- Physical therapy
- Nutrition services
Early interventions occur at or before preschool age, as early as 2 or 3 years of age. In this period, a young child's brain is still forming,7 meaning it is more "plastic" or changeable than at older ages. Because of this plasticity, treatments have a better chance of being effective in the longer term.6 Early interventions not only give children the best start possible, but also the best chance of developing to their full potential. The sooner a child gets help, the greater the chance for learning and progress. In fact, recent guidelines suggest starting an integrated developmental and behavioral intervention as soon as ASD is diagnosed or seriously suspected.6
With early intervention, some children with autism make so much progress that they are no longer on the autism spectrum when they are older. Many of the children who later go off the spectrum have some things in common:3
- Diagnosis and treatment at younger ages
- A higher intelligence quotient (IQ, a measure of thinking ability) than average for a child with autism
- Better language and motor skills
Early intervention programs help children gain the basic skills that they usually learn in the first 2 years of life, such as:
- Physical skills
- Thinking skills
- Communication skills
- Social skills
- Emotional skills
Each state has its own early intervention program for children from birth to age 2 years who are diagnosed with developmental delays or disabilities, including ASD. These programs are specified by Part C of Public Law 108-77: Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), sometimes called "IDEA."8 Some states also provide services for children who are at risk for developmental delays and disabilities.
To learn more about early intervention services, visit one of the following sites:
- National Research Council, Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism. Educating Children With Autism. Lord, C., McGee, J. P., eds. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2001.
- Olley, J. G. (2005). Curriculum and classroom structure. In: Volkmar, F. R., Paul, R., Klin, A., Cohen, D. (Eds.), Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. 3rd ed. Vol II (863–881). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Helt, M., Kelley, E., Kinsbourne, M., Pandey, J., Boorstein, H., Herbert, M., et al. (2008). Can children with autism recover? If so, how? Neuropsychology Review, 18(4), 339–366.
- Rogers, S. J., & Lewis, H. (1989). An effective day treatment model for young children with pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 28(2), 207–214.
- Reichow, B., & Wolery, M. (2009). Comprehensive synthesis of early intensive behavioral interventions for young children with autism based on the UCLA young autism project model. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(1), 23–41.
- Zwaigenbaum, L., Bauman, M. L., Choueiri, R., Kasari, C., Carter, A., Granpeesheh, D., et al. (2015). Early intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder under 3 years of age: Recommendations for practice and research. Pediatrics, 136(Suppl 1), S60–81. PMID: 26430170
- Dawson, G., Rogers, S., Munson, J., Smith, M., Winter, J., Greenson, J., et al. (2010). Randomized, controlled trial of an intervention for toddlers with autism: the Early Start Denver Model. Pediatrics, 125(1), e17–23.
- Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004. (2010). Retrieved January 28, 2011, from https://sites.ed.gov/idea/