Make the Most of Early Intervention for An Autistic Child

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Early Intervention refers to programs offered in the United States for babies and young children with disabilities. Early intervention programs vary from state to state and are accessed through state programs or local school districts.

Children with autism (or even autism-like symptoms) usually qualify for early intervention, which may include a range of therapies, preschool programs for children with disabilities, and even programs to help parents or guardians cope with stress and support their autistic children.

This article will discuss types of early intervention, how it works, how to access these services, and tips to use them to benefit your child.

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Overview of Early Intervention

Early intervention is funded by the federal government through grants provided to states. Its purpose is to provide infants and children with disabilities with intensive therapies and programs to help them improve their skills throughout early childhood.

The state provides early intervention programs (EI) for children under 3 years old. After that, services are provided through the local school system. There is no income test related to early intervention.

Once a child is in EI, they will probably stay in the program until they are 6 years old. At that point, their services will become the school district's responsibility—and they will almost certainly be enrolled in a school program.

If a child is correctly diagnosed with autism, they will not "grow out of it," but EI may make it easier for them to transition smoothly into a mainstream or disability centered school program.

Early Intervention Services for Autistic Children

EI exists to serve individual children with disabilities and their families. Thus, for example, a baby with cerebral palsy will receive very different services from a child with autism. Children with autism may be diagnosed as young as 18 months, and some are at high enough risk of autism that their services begin at an even younger age.

In general (depending on the state), autistic children may be offered:

  • Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy: There are many types of ABA available, and different approaches are more popular in different locations. ABA is intended to teach children appropriate behaviors and skills, with the ultimate goal of having them join the majority of their peers in school and the community.
  • Developmental or play therapy: There are several different types of play and developmental therapy. Approaches vary from state to state. Developmental therapies help build social communication skills and may help children with autism play and communicate more successfully with their peers.
  • Occupational and sensory integration therapy: Children with autism often have fine-motor challenges that make it difficult to handle a fork or draw with a pencil. They often have sensory challenges that make it difficult to experience bright lights and loud sounds (or they may crave sensory input). Occupational therapists work with autistic children to help them improve their skills and lessen sensory overload.
  • Speech therapy: Children with autism may have speech delays or not use speech typically (repeating words rather than using them meaningfully or having problems understanding abstract ideas). Early intervention can help them catch up to their peers, learn how to use spoken language, or use nonverbal tools for communication (such as picture boards or sign language).
  • Special preschool and summer programs: While an autistic child may receive some therapies at home or in an office setting, many states provide disability or special education preschool programs to enhance learning in a group setting. Programs may be in the local school district or a county or state-run setting.

Early Intervention Supports for Parents or Guardians

Many states offer EI programs for parents or guardians as well as children on the autism spectrum. Often, these programs are essentially parent and guardian training. Their purpose is to teach parents and guardians how to partner with therapists on an autistic child's behalf.

Some programs are also intended to help parents and guardians cope with the stress related to raising a child with autism. Parents and guardians may be offered:

  • Training from therapists: Therapists can only work with children for a limited number of hours a week, but parents and guardians have many more opportunities to build skills at any time of the day. Even better, research suggests that parents and guardians who feel that they have a role to play in an autistic child's development are less likely to feel overwhelmed.
  • Individual psychological support: In some cases, social workers or psychologists work directly with parents and guardians who are coping with significant stress related to their child's autism.
  • Group support programs: Often, EI programs include parent or guardian support group meetings in which information, tips, and emotional support are shared.

Does Early Intervention Work?

Research suggests that EI can be very helpful for children with autism. Through EI, children increase a range of skills, reduce problematic behaviors, and improve social skills—and those outcomes can have a long-term positive impact. They also get a head start on building the skills they need to integrate into a school community.

In general, families who maximize EI and use parent and guardian training to work intensively with their child are likely to see good results—but the quality of parent and guardian training can also impact outcomes.

It's important to remember that even very high-quality EI is not a cure for autism—it is, instead, a tool for helping autistic children prepare for the next steps in their development.

Though virtually all children who participate in EI programs improve both long- and short-term functioning compared to children who don't participate in EI, very few improve dramatically or are they remain at the same level as their same-age neurotypical peers.

Oddly enough, there is very little research to indicate which interventions are most likely to be successful with each child. What's more, researchers don't find a clear correlation between the number of hours of EI provided, parental and guardian education, or other factors that could potentially make a difference.

Because every state's programs are different, and implementation can vary even within any given state, it's difficult to know which programs work for whom, at what level, and for how many hours per week.

How to Access Early Intervention

If a child has already been diagnosed with autism, there is a good chance a clinician will be able to direct their family to EI services in the local area. If concerned about a child, however, a doctor's referral is not required.

Families can reach out to their state EI program by going to the appropriate page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, as follows:

  • For children under age 3, locate your state on the CDC Early Intervention page to find contact information. Call your state's EI office and let them know you're seeking EI intervention. They will guide you through the process to determine whether your child is eligible and will tell you how to proceed.
  • For children over age 3 and under age 7, call your local elementary school and ask about EI services. The district will guide you from there.
  • If your child is past the age of 6, the opportunity is no longer available for EI. Your child, however, can and should receive free services through your school district.

Tips for Making the Most of Early Intervention

Once you've made the right connections and your child is found to be eligible for EI, there are a few tips you can follow to make the most of it, including:

  • Understand what your state of residence offers to autistic children. Typically, you won't be presented with a menu of options—but ask around at parent or guardian support groups or even in therapists' offices. If you learn of a service that interests you that hasn't been offered, ask about it.
  • Agree to any service that sounds like a good match for your child, but remember that you are not obligated to accept specific services. For example, some parents and guardians prefer one type of therapy to another or are concerned about their child spending a very large number of hours in behavioral therapy.
  • Participate to the greatest degree possible in any parent and guardian-oriented training or support groups. The more you know about your child's therapies, the better equipped you'll be to provide them yourself. And the better connected you are with other parents and guardians of children with autism, the more information you'll be able to collect about local services and educational programs.
  • Do some research to find out about therapies that may not be offered locally but are offered elsewhere. For example, researchers found that one particular intervention—the Early Start Denver Model—offers better outcomes than other similar programs.

Summary

Early intervention programs are offered for children with disabilities, including those with autism. They include various types of therapy, disability or special education preschool programs, and programs to help parents or guardians. Research has shown that these programs are beneficial.

A Word From Verywell

Early intervention is a valuable service and has the potential to give autistic children an important head start. But autistic children who do not experience EI also grow and mature.

What's more, there is no magic window of opportunity for autism treatment. If a child isn't diagnosed until after they turn 6, they will still benefit from therapies and educational programs through the local school district.

It's also important to remember that just as there is no magic window for intervention, there is no magical cure for autism. And the truth is that many people who grow up autistic have no need or desire for a cure because they are happy with the brains they were born with.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Center for Parent Information and Resources. Overview of early intervention.

  2. Landa RJ. Efficacy of early interventions for infants and young children with, and at risk for, autism spectrum disordersInt Rev Psychiatry. 2018;30(1):25-39. doi:10.1080/09540261.2018.1432574

  3. Shi B, Wu W, Dai M, Zeng J, Luo J, Cai L, Wan B, Jing J. Cognitive, language, and behavioral outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorders exposed to early comprehensive treatment models: A meta-analysis and meta-regression. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Jul 26;12:691148. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2021.691148

  4. Estes A, Swain DM, MacDuffie KE. The effects of early autism intervention on parents and family adaptive functioningPediatr Med. 2019;2:21. doi:10.21037/pm.2019.05.05

  5. Noyes-Grosser DM, Elbaum B, Wu Y, et al. Early intervention outcomes for toddlers with autism spectrum disorder and their familiesInfants & Young Children. 2018;31(3):177-199. doi:10.1097/IYC.0000000000000121

  6. Estes A, Munson J, Rogers SJ, Greenson J, Winter J, Dawson G. Long-term outcomes of early intervention in 6-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2015 Jul;54(7):580-7. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2015.04.005

Additional Reading
  • Center for Parent Information and Resources. Overview of Early Intervention. https://www.parentcenterhub.org/ei-overview/

  • Estes A, Swain DM, MacDuffie KE. The effects of early autism intervention on parents and family adaptive functioning. Pediatr Med. 2019;2:21. doi:10.21037/pm.2019.05.05

  • Front. Psychiatry, 26 July 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2021.691148

    Cognitive, Language, and Behavioral Outcomes in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorders Exposed to Early Comprehensive Treatment Models: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Bijun Shi1,2†


  • Landa RJ. Efficacy of early interventions for infants and young children with, and at risk for, autism spectrum disorders. Int Rev Psychiatry. 2018;30(1):25-39. doi:10.1080/09540261.2018.1432574

  • Noyes-Grosser, Donna M. PhD; Elbaum, Batya PhD; Wu, Yan PhD; Siegenthaler, Kirsten M. PhD; Cavalari, Rachel S. PhD; Gillis, Jennifer M. PhD; Romanczyk, Raymond G. PhD Early Intervention Outcomes for Toddlers With Autism Spectrum Disorder and Their Families, Infants & Young Children: July/September 2018 - Volume 31 - Issue 3 - p 177-199 doi: 10.1097/IYC.0000000000000121