Early Intervention for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders 

Published on: November 15, 2013

Navigating a diagnosis of autism can be difficult for parents and children. Symptoms are sometimes misdiagnosed by specialists and families can easily become tired and anxious while hoping for answers and help.

By Ali Khakpoor


Mary and Charles were a young expat couple living in Bangkok when their son was diagnosed with autism by a doctor at their local hospital. The week before, a different hospital diagnosed their son with ADHD, but after reading about ADHD, Mary trusted her intuition and questioned the doctors involved.

The process made Mary and Charles feel that nothing made sense. All they knew for sure was that their son was a bit late with his language. At age one, he was speaking some words, but had since stopped speaking completely. Their son liked to play with his toy car most of the time and loved to eat popcorn and orange juice. They loved him very much.

More than anything, Mary and Charles wanted to help their son. They worried for his future and didn’t know how to help him do well. When a psychologist specializing in child development contacted the family as part of a followup to the diagnosis, Mary and Charles were ready to listen.  

At first, the new terms, the difficulty in finding good treatment, and the uncertainty of what lies ahead make many parents feel like getting into bed and hiding under the covers.

Fortunately, this feeling is soon overshadowed by the determination to find the best programs and best intervention available for their child.

But getting these answers, and knowing where to start, can be difficult. 

Find the right intervention program

To help evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention programs for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), parents should consider the following criteria: 

  • The intervention should start as soon as possible.
  • The intervention program should be individualized for each child.
  • The intervention program should be designed and overseen by a trained professional.
  • The program should allow for ongoing data collection on the progress the child is making in each skill area.
  • The child should be actively engaged in the intervention activities.
  • Parents should be closely involved in the intervention, as well as in setting up goals and priorities. 

Another important criterion is that the intervention should be based on evidence-based practices. It means that the intervention has been tested in scientific studies and published in scientific journals.

Be cautious of interventions in which the provider is the sole person testifying to its effectiveness or, even worse, when the specialist cites their own clinical experience as scientific evidence for the intervention.

A great deal of brain development is still in the future for a young child.

High-quality programs use evidence-based practices. Most evidence-based practices come from the field of applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is the use of teaching methodology that comes from the scientific study of learning to teach or change behavior. 

The principles of applied behavior analysis can be used to teach new skills, shape existing behaviors into new and more complex ones, and reduce the frequency of problem behaviors.

You can ask if the intervention program uses evidence-based practices in its teaching based on applied behavior analysis. If the answer is no, look for additional options.

Understand how early intervention works

Studies on infant-learning have helped us understand why early intervention is so effective. In the past 30 years, scientists have learned that even very young infants are highly engaged in learning and know much more than we believed.

Young infants are like little scientists. They develop ideas of how the world around them works, and they test these ideas through their body actions and their senses. They take in information from all their experiences, and they use this information to improve their ideas about how the world works.

At birth, infants have the capacity to hear and produce all of the different speech sounds that make up all of the spoken languages in the world. This capacity is lost over time when a child does not make use of certain sounds for their spoken languages.

Because of the active nature of infant learning, it is important to consider the following:

  • What opportunities for learning are available in the various daily activities of your young child with ASD?
  • What kinds of activities does your child actively attend to and find rewarding?
  • Does your child have the basic skills for learning from others, such as paying attention to others, imitating them, playing with them, and watching what they do?
  • Does your child exhibit any problem behaviors that interfere with learning from others, such as frequent tantrums or overly repetitive behaviors?

A central goal of good early intervention is to help young children with ASD pay attention to key social learning opportunities. These include speech, faces, and gestures.

Early intervention also aims to “boost,” or make more salient, their attention to people so that they can more readily make sense of the information that is essential for typical language and social development.

Why does a child with ASD have these unique challenges?

It has to do with how autism affects brain development. There are areas of the brain that are specialized for aspects of social learning, such as eye contact and emotional responses.

Research has shown that these key areas of the brain specialized for language and social interaction are under-functioning in young children with autism.

There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent this. You could have never caused this in any way.

Fortunately, the brain has great plasticity early in life. A great deal of brain development is still in the future for a young child, so by providing specialized experiences that stimulate social and communication development, it seems possible to steer your child’s brain development back to a more typical path.

Last words: Take care of yourself

During the first several months or even years after learning that your child has ASD, it is tempting to put aside your own needs and that of other family members while you focus on your child.

It is, however, very wise to take some time to consider the needs of your whole family including yourself. It is tempting to put yourself at the bottom of the priority list. Don’t do it! Taking care of yourself is the only way you’ll be able to take care of everyone else.

Communication between family members is critical. Talk to each other. Because you’re so caught up in the issues involving your young child, it can be hard to think or talk about anything else.

It’s important to share other parts of your lives in your communications. When you see each other, after your separate daily routines, make a point of asking about the other things that matter to each of you. Really listen and try to join your partner in his or her life. When you talk, try hard to spend just a few minutes each day together, focused on each other, before launching into the subject of the children.

Last, avoid placing blame at all costs. It’s human nature to try to find someone to blame for your child’s condition and for the sadness that you feel.  There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent this. You could have never caused this in any way.

You and your family are the solution and not the problem. 


Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay 

About the Author

Ali Khakpoor is a clinical child psychologist and director of the Reed Institute in Bangkok.

The views expressed in the articles in this magazine are not necessarily those of BAMBI committee members and we assume no responsibility for them or their effects.

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