Education, support and research for early years autism

What is Early Intervention?

The term ‘Early Intervention’ is used to refer to a wide range of different approaches and programmes which aim to foster and enhance development in very young children.

At Puzzle, we refer to the importance of early intervention in terms of a very specific, targeted approach to teaching young children with significant communication difficulties, particularly autistic spectrum disorders, as well as supporting and training their families and others who may work or live with the child.

There is no single best treatment package for all children with ASD.  One point that most professionals agree on is that early intervention is important; another is that most individuals with ASD respond well to highly structured, specialised programmes

Much research and both national and international government guidelines and reports over the last 10 years have strongly emphasised the crucial importance of early identification and intervention in general for young children with special educational needs including autism and other communication difficulties.

For example, the Bercow Review of services for Children and Young People with Speech, Language and Communication Needs (2008) re-iterated the importance of early identification and intervention in order to avoid poor outcomes for children, ‘Research has not told us everything we need to know about communication problems but, equally, it has not told us nothing. In addressing delays and disorders, the most important principle is the value of early intervention and the danger of its absence ….the danger is that the problems will have become entrenched, that the interventions required will be greater and that the cost entailed will be higher.’

The Allen Report on Early Intervention for the Government (2011) also emphasises the potential high cost to the taxpayer of delaying intervention ‘Since waiting for problems to take root before reacting costs the taxpayer billions of pounds, I recommend that we should exploit the potential for massive savings in public expenditure through an Early Intervention approach’.

The Government Green Paper on Children and Young People with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (2010) highlights the struggle that families can too often face to get the right support for their child and themselves. It states ‘Through effective early identification and intervention – working with parents and families – we can reduce the impact that SEN or disability may have in the long-run, and enable more young people to lead successful and independent adult lives.’

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism has been established since 2000. They see one of their objectives achievable by 2013 as: Early Intervention – All children receiving a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder will be offered a prompt and appropriate early intervention programme based on best available evidence.

Early intervention for children with autism is widely perceived as the key to reducing some symptoms and enhancing their outcomes. (Fletcher-Campbell, 2003).

At this point in time it is still unclear exactly what the most effective type of early intervention package is for young children with autism or other communication difficulties.

However, there is much emerging evidence and examples of effective practice. For example when Dawson and Osterling (1997) reviewed a number of programmes for young children with autism in the United States. They identified the following aspects of successful programmes:


  • An intense programme (followed for at least 20 hours per week)
  • A curriculum focused on understanding and use of language, learning style, play with toys and social interaction, using typically developing children as models
  • A predictable teaching environment, using visual clues and with opportunities for one-to-one work and generalisation of skills
  • A functional approach to problem solving
  • Carefully planned transitions from home/nursery to school
  • Parental involvement

Since that review there have been a number of other studies which have attempted to compare different types of intervention programmes.

For example, ‘A two year prospective follow-up study for community based early intensive behavioural intervention and specialist nursery provision for children with autism spectrum disorders’, Magiati, Charman and Howlin (2007) and ‘Systematic Review of Early intensive Behavioural Interventions for Children with Autism’, Howlin, Magiati and Charman (2009).

Howlin et.al. conclude that interventions which focus on communication and joint social interaction can have a significant and positive impact on childrens functioning and that ‘A switch of focus to examine the comparative effects of interventions with a strong evidence base…, rather than simply comparing high quality with low quality/low intensity alternatives, is likely to be of benefit to many more children and their families.’

The Puzzle Centre strives to review and reflect upon our own practices and to incorporate recent research findings and guidelines of effective practice so that we can offer our children and families the highest quality service