Understanding Autism: Why Early Intervention Works

Image via Katie Hurley

As a psychotherapist, I've had many parents sit on my couch with tears trickling down their cheeks as they uttered the same phrases, “We didn't know. We were told he would grow out of it.” Waiting and watching took time from them and their children. Although they voiced their concerns in whispers at annual appointments, they were never referred for further evaluation. Years later, they felt angry, sad, and guilty. They wanted to go back in time because early intervention isn't just a catchphrase – it works.

Research shows that children who receive early intervention treatment for autism show better brain function as well as improved communication and social skills. When parents seek evaluation and treatment early on, children show fewer language delays and overall symptoms.

While diagnosis often occurs between the ages of 3-5, experts now believe that babies as young as six months can exhibit symptoms.

The question is, what does this really mean for parents of young children who might or might not have autism? Getting a diagnosis can be difficult, particularly with very young children, because no two children are exactly the same. While diagnosis often occurs between the ages of 3-5, experts now believe that babies as young as six months can exhibit symptoms.

A small study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders followed seven babies between 7 and 15 months of age who showed symptoms of autism. The infants were provided early intervention treatment for twelve weeks. When researchers followed up at 18 and 36 months, they discovered that symptoms diminished greatly. While the results of this study are promising and offer hope for parents and children, it can still be difficult for families to get the services they need.

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I've had many parents recall lengthy conversations with pediatricians about their concerns that went unresolved. When a parent reports that an infant stares at a fan “obsessively” it’s difficult to make the leap to autism – many babies do this. If a parent actually tracked that behavior and recorded amounts of time avoiding the gaze of a parent and staring at the fan instead, a healthcare professional might think twice. I always tell parents to trust their guts and seek more than one opinion, especially when that nagging feeling just won’t go away. It’s better to wrong, after all, than to miss a critical window of treatment.

Early intervention services help children from birth to three years old. Although diagnosing autism can be tricky during infancy, children at risk for developmental delays might still be eligible for services in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These services are provided through an early intervention program in your state and require an evaluation.

There are many early intervention treatment options available, including: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Developmental, Individual Differences, Relationship-Based Approach (DIR or “Floortime”), Speech Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Sensory Integration Therapy, The Picture Exchange Communications System (PECS), dietary approaches, and complimentary treatments.

{ MORE: Does This Study Help Doctors Understand Possible Causes of Autism? }

It’s a lot to process, and it can be confusing for parents. The best first step (after the evaluation, of course) is to find a great support system in your area. From local parent groups to Facebook groups to online networks to blogs, parents can connect with other parents to share stories and ask questions, and this can demystify the process to some extent. Parents who know the ropes and understand the treatment options (and the evaluation process) can guide other parents through the process. It also helps to have an understanding pediatrician in your corner. Don’t be afraid to make changes and seek alternatives.

Early intervention has the potential to change your child’s future. Ask questions. Seek referrals. And never leave an appointment more confused than when you arrived.

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Understanding Autism: Why Early Intervention Works

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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