Early Intervention at Any Age

"Early intervention" usually brings up images of toddlers or pre-schoolers completing puzzles, learning to put on a jacket, or labeling photos. In its truest sense, early intervention is better described as "intervening early". When thought of that way, the concept (and corresponding strategies) can be applied at any age to intervene on challenges or issues that are preventing your child from being as successful as they could be.

I often get questions from parents or caregivers about behavior issues, such as sleep routine ("How do I get him to sleep in his own bed?"), feeding challenges ("How do I get her to eat more than creamed corn?"), or issues with rigidity ("If he can't sit in the red chair, he screams"). The best response to these questions, is not to allow the problem behavior to get embedded in the first place. It's probably the least helpful response, but arguably the most accurate response.
 As soon as you see a problem behavior has been established, seek help or further education right then and there. ~Don't wait.~
 I repeat, don't wait and think the behavior will just go away magically on it's own. The same recommendation is true for skill deficits. If there is a particular skill your child is struggling with, seek help or further education to help them learn the skill. Don't wait and think the skill will magically appear in it's own time. 

Just ask any ABA professional and they will tell you that untangling a behavior knot that has been in place for weeks, months, or even years, is difficult. It may seem like problem behaviors pop up overnight, but they rarely leave overnight. Meaning that it typically takes hard work and effort to reduce or replace challenging behaviors.

The hard truth for many families is quality treatment just isn't accessible. It could be a funding issue, there could be a lack of local providers, or maybe other environmental barriers to accessing available treatment are in place. I meet families of older children all the time who haven't even heard of ABA treatment. You can't request a therapy you don't know exists.

Yes, accessing intensive and quality treatment is always going to be the ideal option. But for those who cannot, it's helpful to know that there are still options available to you and your child. What is most important is to have expectations for your child, set realistic goals (such as teaching your child to use a spoon), and then work diligently toward each goal. Don't overload both you and the child by tackling multiple things at once, as this is a marathon and not a sprint.

See below for other tips:

  1. Look into funding sources in your local area, and see what your insurance will cover. The local school system typically has resources available through special education that most families just don't know about. Ask if there is a parent advocate/liaison to help you navigate all the treatment options.
  2. Consider pursuing intensive treatment or consultation, and then following through on your own. Nowadays, many parents attend ABA conferences, enroll in behavior analytic coursework, or even pursue the RBT credential just to learn about the science. You can also pursue free training events that may be offered at local colleges, ABA clinics, or research institutions. The more you can learn about Autism, behavior, and ABA, the better equipped you will be to handle challenging behaviors. You can also work intensively (and briefly if needed) with a BCBA and then follow through with their recommendations on your own.
  3. Learn as much as you can from your child's teachers. Special education teachers have so much knowledge and experience creating accommodations and breaking down instructional material for children who learn in unique ways. I would suggest regularly reaching out to the teacher to ask questions about issues at home, to pick their brain for ideas, and actually observing in the classroom to get ideas about what can be replicated at home. For example: nearly all my clients follow a daily schedule in the school setting, but not at home. Why?? The same benefits that are achieved at school from having a consistent daily routine, can easily be achieved at home by using the same technique.
  4. Look for activities/groups/classes that welcome children with disabilities. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of peer models, and making sure your child spends time around typically developing peers. There are many fun kid activities like karate, gymnastics, or swim, that do offer accommodations so individuals with special needs can participate. Beyond the actual skill that is being taught, your child is learning to learn within a group, to follow an authority figure, to socialize/be appropriate around other kids, and most importantly they are integrating into their local community.
  5. Avoid the establishment of strict rituals or routines. Now this one is easier said than done, but it's super important. Most of the older clients I work with have particular challenging behaviors that have been allowed to persist for years and years. The longer a behavior is embedded, often the more difficult the intervention will be. So how do you know the difference between a simple preference ("I like to sit in the green chair at dinner") vs. a rigid ritual ("I MUST sit in the green chair at dinner")? Look at what happens when the ritual is interrupted, or cannot occur....does intense problem behavior follow? If so, then just close your eyes and imagine what the behavior will look like in 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years. If you're not okay with how the behavior will likely grow over time, then it's time to intervene.
  6. Intentionally set aside time for active engagement with your child. If you're wondering what in the world "active engagement" means, it basically means to focus on extending an interaction for as long as you can. Get down on the child's level, and read a book to your child, paint together, bounce them on a huge yoga ball, or line up cars together. The actual activity doesn't matter much, what is more important is that both you and the child are socializing, and not you socializing with the child and receiving no socialization in return. Talking is teaching! By talking to your child, engaging them in an activity, and socializing with them 1:1, you are teaching many skills at once. Point to objects together, play with a toy, sing songs and dance, laugh and make eye contact, tickle the child, model language use ("c-u-p"), etc.
  7. Have household rules. Schools have rules, right? So does any workplace, the library, the grocery store, even the slide at the playground has rules concerning how to use it. But does your child have rules at home? Are there certain things they cannot do? Do they know what the rules are? You will help your child grow into independence and maturity immensely, if you set expectations of their behavior and follow through with consequences when those expectations are not met.

*More resources below for ways to intervene early, and help your child be as successful as they can as they age. Remember, just because a resource may state "ages 0-3" that does NOT mean you can't use the same general strategy with your older child. The point is to intervene early as much as you can, teaching important life skills and reducing problem behaviors as soon as they appear. 

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