Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a combination of differences in social communication and social interaction, and the presence of restricted, repetitive behaviors or interests. Individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can have a broad range of symptoms, symptom severity and adaptive skills resulting in highly varied presentations.
In recent years, the number of autism diagnoses has grown exponentially. A recent study conducted in the United Kingdom found there was a 787% increase in the number of new autism diagnoses between 1998 and 2019 (Russell et al., 2022). The World Health Organization estimates that globally, 1 in 100 children have autism, with the average global age of diagnosis being 5 years old (van’t Hof et al., 2021). In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 36 8-year-olds are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder with the average age at diagnosis being 4 years, 4 months. Notably, children can be reliably diagnosed with autism as early as 18 months of age.
When children are accurately diagnosed at a young age and begin receiving early intervention services before the age of 5 years, they often make greater progress with less intense interventions than children who do not begin receiving interventions until after the age of 5 years (Granpeesheh et al., 2009).
Early diagnosis and subsequent early intervention for children with autism has been widely recognized as effective at improving both short- and long-term outcomes. Early intervention with children capitalizes on the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to being exposed to new situations or learning. At a young age, children’s brains are wired to learn language and other new skills.
Receiving early intervention services has been linked to increased communication, increased adaptive behaviors, decreased autism symptom severity and decreased behavior problems. Research conducted in the 1980s found that nearly 50% of people diagnosed with autism displayed limited verbal communication throughout their life despite intervention.
However, recent data shows that this number has dropped to 10% with the increase in effective and early interventions. Importantly, nonverbal children with autism who begin receiving early intervention services either before or during preschool are more likely to develop verbal language skills than children who do not start receiving intervention until the age of 5, thus highlighting the importance of services beginning before the age of 5 (Koegel et al., 2014). Similarly, that the greatest improvements in social communication skills were found in children who began receiving interventions around 4 years old, further highlighting the importance of an early and accurate diagnosis of autism, as well as early intervention (Fuller et al., 2020).
In addition to early intervention having a positive impact on communication in children with autism, those who receive early invention have been shown to display improved eye contact, social engagement and verbal reciprocity.
Receiving early intervention has been linked to a decrease in repetitive behaviors (e.g., lining up toys), an increase in functional and interactive play and a decrease in sensory sensitivities. Further, children who receive early intervention at a young age have more developed adaptive skills than their peers who did not receive early intervention. For example, children with autism who receive early intervention are more likely to have improved daily living skills (e.g., dressing, hygiene, asking for help, etc.) than those who do not receive early intervention. Finally, children who receive early intervention were more likely to be educated in less restrictive school environments.
With the significant increase in autism diagnoses in recent years, it is important to ensure that children with autism have access to early intervention services due to the numerous and impactful benefits it has on developmental and social trajectories. Children with autism who receive early intervention services have been shown to have improved outcomes in the areas of communication, social interactions, behaviors, and adaptive skills compared to their peers who do not receive early intervention services. These improved skills further translate to school placement, the development of peer friendships and support and independent living. It is important to note that there is a limited number of studies addressing long-term outcomes of early intervention beyond a two-year follow-up. As such, more studies are needed to explore the effects of early intervention on individuals with autism as they move into adulthood. PJC
Kelsey Elliott is a doctoral psychology intern at Wesley Family Services. She is currently completing her PsyD in school psychology at Alfred University.