Autism Early Intervention: How Early and What Differences Does it Make?

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The Earlier Diagnosis of Autism

The causes and varying impairments of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) remain mysterious. What has become clearer, however, is the young age at which a child can be diagnosed with autism. In the late 1990’s, children were rarely diagnosed with an ASD before three of four years of age. Today, however, children as young as 18 months are being diagnosed with autism, thanks to more awareness and widespread screening from medical professionals. Pediatricians can now recognize autism in toddlers who display poor eye contact, difficulties in processing social stimuli, and motor and attention impairments.

Autism Early Intervention

This earlier diagnosis of autism and related disorders signifies that developmental delays can be treated at an even earlier age. While no cure exists for these disorders, autism early intervention seeks to minimize delays and better a child’s potential in reaching normal developmental milestones.

Early intervention consists of different therapies to:

  • develop communication and social interaction skills;
  • build daily living skills;
  • manage challenging, obsessive, and repetitive behaviors;
  • improve gross and fine motor coordination;
  • develop concentration and attention skills, abilities to imitate and play, and;
  • manage sensory difficulties.

The effectiveness of autism early intervention for children as young as 18 months of age was tested in a 2009 comprehensive study. The study’s lead author, Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D., and colleagues examined the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), an intervention designed for toddlers which combines applied behavioral analysis with developmental, relationship-based treatments. Researchers compared two groups of children. In the ESDM group, children received 20 hours a week of the intervention, plus five hours a week of parent-delivered therapy. Children in the second group received therapy from community-based programs. As the study began, no substantial difference in functioning existed between the two groups. Both groups were monitored throughout the study.

At the end of the study, researchers found that the IQ of the toddlers in the ESDM group had improved by an average of nearly 18 points, compared to just over four points in the comparison group. Additionally, children in the ESDM group showed an approximately 18-point improvement in receptive language compared to approximately 10 points in the comparison group. In fact, seven children in the ESDM group displayed enough overall the skill improvement to receive a change in diagnosis from autism to the milder condition of Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified. Only one child in the community-based intervention group had an improved diagnosis.

Toddlers in the ESDM intervention group received treatment in their home, provided by trained therapists and parents who received instruction. Researchers found that individualized, structured teaching with relationship-based approaches to learning and playing fostered the children’s progress. Children showed improvements in communication, daily living abilities, motor coordination, social skills, and adaptive behaviors. Based on the findings of this study, early intervention at the youngest age possible results in positive outcomes for children with ASDs.


Lee, K. (2009). Autism intervention for toddlers improves developmental outcomes. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from

Morris, B. (2008). An introduction to early intervention. Autism Spectrum Disorders Fact Sheet. Retrieved October 12, 2010, from