Before dwelling into why early intervention for Autism matters, let’s find out about what it is all about:
It refers to providing support as early as possible to help your child cope with the difficulties arising from the condition. They are aimed to make a difference to your child’s development, at the stage where behaviours and neural networks are most malleable. Early intervention may begin at any time between birth and 6 years old.
There are two main reasons to why it matters to begin as early as possible:
1. To enhance the child’s development when the brain is most plastic.
Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity, according to Oxford Dictionaries, is “the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury”. As we have all figured by now, learning slows down as we age. This is because in our first 6 years of our life, our brains are creating and forming neural networks called synapses. There are two parts to why intervening during this period is crucial.
Firstly, we establish stronger synapses more easily given that we are starting off as “a blank sheet of paper”. In other words, we learn quicker and better.
Secondly, the skills and behaviors that a child pick up at this stage will stay more or less “stagnant” after 6 years old as these synapses have been strongly connected and difficult to alter. That is why doctors call this period between 0 to 6 years old as the “critical period” where the brain is most plastic.
2. To provide support and assistance to the family as early as possible, minimising stress on caregivers.
Early intervention services also have a significant impact on the parents and siblings of the special needs infant or young child. The family of a young special needs child often feels disappointment, social isolation, added stress, frustration, and helplessness. The compounded stress of the presence of an exceptional child may affect the family’s well-being and interfere with the child’s development.
A good early intervention program should work with caregivers and family members closely to achieve the best results. Other than providing therapy to the child, therapists provide feedback and suggestions that anyone taking care of the child can implement. Early intervention can also result in parents having improved attitudes about themselves and their child, improved information and skills for teaching their child, and more time for leisure and enjoyment.
Knowledge leads to better understanding and more effective coping strategies, and hence less frustration and anxiety.
Why is behavioural modification or Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and Verbal behaviour (VB) effective as an early intervention program?
Extensive research has shown that repetitive engagement in a certain behaviour or simply habits rewires our brain. Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) is a proven and highly effective therapy when used with children with autism especially during the developmental years. As mentioned in an article from PsyPost, “ABA is a highly effective instructional technique that is much more compassionate than allowing a child to go untreated”. However, it has also been criticised for being robotic and cruel. The misunderstanding arise because not all ABA programs are carried out the same way. What really makes a difference is how the ABA is being practiced.
The Verbal Behavioural (VB) approach by Dr. Mark L. Sundberg and Dr. James W. Partington is a form of ABA program focusing on motivation and teaching the functions of language to children with autism and other developmental conditions. The levels of motivation affect the child’s ability to learn and cope with their conditions, including stimming, short attention span and even information processing. A child that understands the benefits of communication through language is intrinsically motivated to use it and learns to control the way they process information as well as sensory inputs and outputs.
To find out more on VB: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ937628.pdf
In summary, the rate of human learning and development is most rapid in the preschool years as shown in the extensive studies done over the years. Timing of intervention becomes particularly important when a child runs the risk of missing an opportunity to learn during a state of maximum readiness. If the most teachable moments or stages of greatest readiness are not taken advantage of, a child may have greater difficulty learning a particular skill at a later time.
Children with autism usually have learning gaps. This means that they are behind developmentally in one or more areas as compared to children of their same chronological age. When an early intervention program is provided, these gaps are narrowed and bridged. When this occurs, the child will need fewer support services and will be able to cope in a regular learning environment like in mainstream schools. We want our children to be able to learn different communication skills, adapt to our environment and at the same time not losing their quirks which I feel is needed to perk up our society.
At the end of the day, this is one way we can build a society that is more accepting and understanding. Remember, the way we see and treat individuals who are different from us reflects more of us than them.
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