Early intervention for children with disability

Early intervention for children with disability

What is early intervention?

Early intervention means doing things as early as possible to work on your child's developmental, health and support needs.

Early intervention services give specialised support to children and families in the early years (from birth to school entry). This support might include special education, therapy, counselling, service planning and help getting universal services like kindergarten and child care.

You can use early intervention services as well as services available to all children, such as child and family health services, kindergartens, community health centres, regional parenting services, child care services, play groups and occasional care.

People living in National Disability Insurance Scheme trial areas have different intervention and support options from people outside the trial areas. It's worth checking out your options under the NDIS.

Starting intervention as early as possible is the best way to support the development of children with disability.

Therapies and services

Early intervention for children with a disability is made up of therapies and services.

Therapies - or interventions - are the programs or sessions aimed at promoting your child's development.

Services are the places and organisations that offer these therapies. A service might provide one therapy or several types.

Your child can get early intervention therapies and services in many ways, including at home, home via video conferencing, child care and kindergarten or in a specialist setting.

Why diagnosis is important
Early intervention works best when it's targeted at your child's individual needs. For this to happen, you need a diagnosis, which says what disability your child has.

Once you have a diagnosis, your child's specialist or health provider can suggest which early intervention therapy or service might be best for your child. Depending on the needs of your child and family, early intervention might involve a therapist working with your child one on one, a therapist working together with you and your child, or a therapist working in a group session with other children.

If you don't have a diagnosis, or can't get one, that's still OK. A paediatrician might be able to say that your child is slow in reaching developmental milestones in more than one area, such as speech or mobility, because of developmental delay. Then you can work out which early interventions will best target your child's delays.

Types of early intervention

Many children with a disability can benefit from some type of early intervention (or therapy). For example:

  • Occupational therapy can help with fine motor skills, play and self-help skills like dressing and toileting.
  • Physiotherapy can help with motor skills like balance, sitting, crawling and walking.
  • Speech therapy can help with speech, language, eating and drinking skills.

You can get these therapies through community health centres, hospitals, specialist disability services or early intervention services. Your GP, paediatrician or other parents can also tell you about private therapists.

Early intervention often combines specialist support and therapies. You might end up using some government-funded services as well as community service organisations and private therapists.

There are also early intervention therapies that provide specialised support for specific disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and vision impairment.

Some families also look into alternative therapies. You should research these carefully to find out what the research says about the therapy and the time and costs involved.

What to look for in an early intervention

All therapies and services for children with disability should be family focused, well structured and evidence-based.

An intervention that's evidence-based has been tested to check it does what it claims to do when real people use the intervention.

Here's a list of characteristics to look for when you're choosing an early intervention. The more of these characteristics you find in a service, the better - but not all interventions will do all these things.

Family centred
This means that the intervention:

  • includes you and other family members so you can work alongside the professionals and learn how to help your child
  • is flexible - it can be offered in your home as well as in other settings such as kindergartens and early intervention centres
  • provides your family with support and guidance.

Developmentally appropriate
This means that the intervention:

  • is specially designed for children with disability
  • has staff who are specially trained in the intervention and services they provide
  • develops an individual plan for your child and reviews the plan regularly
  • tracks your child's progress with regular assessments.

Child focused
This means the intervention:

  • focuses on developing specific skills
  • includes strategies to help your child learn new skills and use them in different settings
  • prepares and supports your child for the move to school
  • finds ways of getting your child with disability together with typically developing children (ideally of the same age).

Supportive and structured
This means the intervention:

  • provides a supportive learning environment - your child feels comfortable and supported
  • is highly structured, well organised, regular and predictable.
Good early intervention services see your child as a child first, as part of a whole family, and not just a child with a disability.

Other things to think about with early intervention

Intensive early intervention for children with disability is the most effective kind of intervention. It's not just about the number of hours, though - it's also about the quality of those hours and how the therapy engages your child.

Different children respond in different ways to interventions, so no single program will suit all children and their families. Focus on what you want for your child and your family. Learn all you can about the available options. How will they help your child? What will they cost in dollars and time? What funding is available to help cover these costs?

There are good services that aren't funded or listed by government - for example, some home-based programs. These are usually funded by fees and fundraising. This doesn't mean they should be avoided, but the costs can be a strain for some families.

A good intervention involves regular assessment to ensure that your child is making progress. The gains might be small at first, but it all adds up. If you think your child isn't making progress, you might need to change or stop the intervention.

National contacts

The Australian Government Department of Social Services delivers early intervention services to children through Better Start for Children with Disability and Helping Children with Autism. For more information contact the Early Intervention Helpdesk:

Early Childhood Intervention Australia (ECIA) is the peak national organisation promoting the interests of young children with developmental delay or disability, their families and communities.

State and territory contacts

These government agencies can help you find early intervention options in your area.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme is being introduced gradually across Australia. Find out when the NDIS will be in your area. You can also call the National Disability Insurance Agency on 1800 800 110 if you have questions about the NDIS rollout.

Australian Capital Territory
The NDIS is now operating in the Australian Capital Territory. Visit NDIS in the ACT or call the NDIS helpline on 1800 800 110 to find out about getting NDIS support for your child's early intervention in the Australian Capital Territory.

New South Wales
Parent Line NSW

  • Phone: 1300 1300 52
  • Hours: 9 am-9 pm, Monday to Friday; 4 pm-9 pm, Saturday and Sunday

Northern Territory
Northern Territory Government - Early childhood intervention services

Queensland Department of Education - Early childhood development programs and services

  • Phone: (07) 3405 6349

South Australia
SA Government - Health, wellbeing and special needs

Tasmanian Department of Education - Early Childhood Intervention Service

  • Phone: 1800 171 233

Victorian Department of Education and Training - Early Childhood Intervention Services (ECIS)

  • Central office phone: (03) 9637 2000

Western Australia
WA Disability Services Commission

  • Phone: (08) 9426 9200
  • Phone: 1800 998 214 (free call from rural areas)
  • TTY: (08) 9426 9315

Therapy provider contacts

  • Speech Pathology Australia: find a speech pathologist
  • Occupational Therapy Australia: find an OT
  • Australian Physiotherapy Association: find a physio
  • Australian Psychological Society: find a psychologist
  • Australian Hearing: find a hearing centre
  • Vision Australia: find a vision centre