Approximately one in 54 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with the number nearly tripling since the year 2000. That’s more than one child for every three classrooms at the average US elementary school.
On average, these children will receive a diagnosis at age 6. And, while there’s much you can still do to help treat the child at that age, the earlier the treatment starts, the better.
How early? As early as the one-year-old mark, in some cases.
The benefits of early intervention can change your life. Let’s dive into them.
To almost everyone, Hunter (name changed to protect the family’s privacy) seemed like a typical infant. But his parents knew there was something atypical about him.
He would have meltdowns far beyond a characteristic, age-appropriate tantrum; sensory overloads from certain textures, trouble being swaddled as a newborn, and uncommon sleep patterns involving very little sleep.
Despite criticism from incredulous education and medical professionals, Hunter’s mother started him with different therapists while persisting in seeking an ASD diagnosis for him. She finally succeeded when he was 3.
As a result, Hunter — who is now 6 — has had treatment for four years. He can relate to his peers and make friends. He can understand when someone’s joking. He can identify and express many feelings.
His meltdowns last a few minutes instead of several hours. And he’s in the top academic tier of his Kindergarten class.
He hasn’t been “cured” of his autism, and he probably never will be, but he will live a life in which he’s neither defined nor limited by the way his brain works.
Not every child with ASD will have the same outcome, but the odds of improvement are better the earlier the treatment starts.
What Is Early Intervention?
Early intervention is any treatment that happens at or before preschool age, from birth to about three years of age, when the brain is still under construction.
At this stage, brain structures are still highly plastic, meaning they can adapt and develop much more easily than at any time later in life. That’s why, in general, the earlier the treatment, the better the outcome.
Because of that neuroplasticity, the positive changes to the brain from early intervention may be permanent, leading to improved lifelong outcomes.
There are different treatment methodologies. The main behavioral approach is Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, carried out by a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). ABA therapy has a high success rate.
How Early Should I Screen My Child?
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend screening all 18- and 24-month-old children for ASD and other developmental disorders.
Intervention costs are usually covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Some children exhibit signs of ASD as early as six months old, others later, but between 12 and 18 months, the signs should be apparent.
The Benefits of Early Intervention
When you hear the term “autism spectrum,” you may picture something like the visible light spectrum: A linear progression of color with red on one end, violet on the other, and every other hue in between.
But the autism spectrum is a three-dimensional spectrum with many complexities that can’t be reduced to a linear model.
A child with ASD isn’t simply closer to one end of the spectrum or the other; she or he is at several different spots inside a messy pyramid with a labyrinth of cognitive and behavioral areas.
People often label Hunter as a “high-functioning” child with autism. That may be true for his ability to retain information or his recently honed fine motor skills, but not for his ability to concentrate on paying attention, for example.
This complexity of ASD calls for the most effective intervention available. And both research and observation agree that early intervention increases the chances of success.
Let’s look at five specific benefits.
1. Improves Overall Development
Starting intervention early can mean you’re catching and correcting issues at a critical point in the development of your child, changing the developmental path. Improvement in one area may transfer to others.
2. Improves Social Skills
One of the main areas of the deficit with ASD is social impairment. The capacity to relate to others is either not there or is diminished.
ABA therapy and other treatments consistently improve children’s ability to empathize and relate to others, allowing them to participate in meaningful ways in social activities that are crucial to their development.
3. Improves Coping Skills
Just because they can’t always express it doesn’t mean that children with autism don’t experience internal struggles. They do, and the turmoil is often intense.
In addition, they tend to become fixated on certain activities, interests, or behavior patterns, which can lead to frustration when things don’t go their way.
Early intervention can help them learn how to soothe their fears and frustrations and cope with them constructively.
4. Improves Parent-Child Relationships
Learning about your child’s world can help you, the parent, find a degree of empathy and connection you may not achieve otherwise. According to many parents, there’s something magical about relating at that level.
Besides, keeping behaviors that may bother the rest of the family under control can be a boon to parents, facilitating the relationship.
5. Improves Quality of Life
The inevitable result of all that improvement is that your child will thrive, and, as a result, so will you. There’s no better way to help your child reach her or his full potential.
Give Your Child the Best Opportunity
As a parent of a child with ASD, you influence so much of what your child will become. Use your influence to give your child the best life possible. It will improve your own.
Now that you understand the benefits of early intervention, seek out knowledgeable help. We stand ready to support you and your child at home and at our centers.