The Benefits of Early Intervention for Children with Autism

by Louise Kaczmarek

According to the Center for Disease Control, one in 88 children is identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is characterized by deficits in communication and language, social interaction, and restrictive and repetitive behaviors. Children who have ASD vary widely in the degree to which they manifest these symptoms; some are able to function well in school and community without additional supports while others require significant assistance.   

Early intervention refers to a system of services and supports for young children under 5 years of age with developmental delays or disabilities and their families. Emerging research is increasingly demonstrating that early intervention for the youngest children with autism results in positive outcomes. Though the average age of diagnosis in the United States is around 4 years of age, parents often recognize before 12 months that there is “something wrong” with their child. To address the need for earlier diagnosis and intervention, the Center for Disease Control launched the Act Early Campaign to help pediatricians, other healthcare providers, early childhood educators, and families recognize the signs of autism and to assist concerned parents in seeking help.

The intervention strategies identified by research that have been successful with the youngest children with autism tend to use a hybrid approach, integrating developmental and/or relationship-based techniques with those of applied behavior analysis (which focuses on applying the principles of learning). The intervention takes place in play settings and within the natural routines and activities of the child’s day. Parents are the primary providers of the intervention, because they not only spend the most time with their children, but they can also gain important parenting and relationship-establishing skills to improve the quality of life in the home.  

Although early intervention in general has always had the mission to assist families in gaining confidence and competence in their parenting skills, the model mentioned above offers a somewhat more educational and comprehensive method in teaching parents critical skills. This shift in focus, along with other trends in the field, highlight the need for further diversity in the skills that early interventionists need to acquire to be effective. Early interventionists must learn how to teach parents as well as other direct intervention providers to correctly deliver interventions, as research is demonstrating that interventions delivered with high levels of accuracy are much more effective.

This focus has been the impetus for several curriculum modifications to the early intervention program – autism specialization program here at Pitt. Through a grant from the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, we are now able to offer an annual parent-training practicum in which our funded students are coached in the delivery of this model and they in turn coach parents of children with autism to deliver the strategies to their children over a 13-week intervention period.

We offered this practicum for the first time in fall 2013. The four parents who participated in the experience with their children reported learning the intervention strategies and were impressed with the advances their children made in their language, imitation, and play skills. The Pitt students who participated remarked on the uniqueness of the experience and the skills they learned for working closely with families. Similarly, we have started to offer a course on the theory behind accurately following intervention methods, its application to real-life situations, and coaching other professionals and parents to deliver interventions.