If they can’t
learn the way we teach,
We teach the way they learn.

What is early intervention?

Early intervention means identifying and providing effective early support to children and young people who are at risk of poor outcomes.

Effective early intervention works to prevent problems occurring, or to tackle them head-on when they do, before problems get worse. It also helps to foster a whole set of personal strengths and skills that prepare a child for adult life.

Early intervention can take different forms, from home visiting programmes to support vulnerable parents, to school-based programmes to improve children’s social and emotional skills, to mentoring schemes for young people who are vulnerable to involvement in crime.

At a Glance

  • Early intervention helps young kids work toward meeting developmental milestones.
  • Infants and toddlers may qualify for help if they have developmental delays or specific health conditions.
  • To find out if kids are eligible, they have to be evaluated.

Through early intervention, kids from birth to age 3 can get services at home or in the community. Different types of specialists work with kids and their families depending on which skills are delayed.

Early Intervention focuses on skills in these areas:

Physical skills

  • Reaching
  • Crawling
  • Walking
  • Drawing
  • Building

Cognitive skills

  • thinking
  • learning
  • solving problems

Communication skills

  • talking
  • listening
  • understanding others

Self-help or Adaptive skills

  • eating
  • dressing

Why Early Intervention is Important

Earlier is better!

Intervention is likely to be more effective when it is provided earlier in life rather than later.

‘Developmental delay’ is a term that means an infant or child is developing slower than normal in one or more areas (Anderson, Chitwood, & Hayden, 1997). The child may or may not perform the motor, social, cognitive or other activities like children of his age. A child is considered to be at risk when the child’s development may be delayed unless he or she receives early intervention services.

For developmental delays or disorders, waiting for a child to ‘catch up on his own’ just won’t work. Acting early can help a child communicate, play, and learn from the world now and for the future. It can also prevent frustration—so common in children with communication difficulties—from turning into more difficult behaviors.

The connections in a baby’s brain are most adaptable in the first three years of life. These connections, also called neural circuits, are the foundation for learning, behavior, and health. Over time, these connections become harder to change.
The earlier developmental delays are detected and intervention begins, the greater the chance a young child has of achieving his or her best potential.

Intervention works!

Early intervention services can change a child’s developmental path and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.

Aims of Early Intervention Programs

  • Early identification of infants at risk
  • Early identification of developmental delays
  • Enhancement of normal development
  • Acceleration of rate of development
  • Acquisition of new behaviour/skills
  • Increase in independent functioning
  • Psychosocial support to families

Nature of population requiring early intervention, Children with:

Biological Risk

  • Early identification of infants at risk
  • Early identification of developmental delays
  • Enhancement of normal development
  • Acceleration of rate of development

Environmental Risk

  • Poor nutritional status
  • Low Socio-economic status
  • Single parent
  • Poor mother-child interaction
  • Lack of stimulation

Developmental Delays/ Disabilities

  • Cerebral Palsy
  • Epilepsy
  • Autism Spectrum disorders
  • Mental disorders
  • Learning disabilities
  • Sensory impairments

What are the most common developmental disabilities?

The most common developmental disability is Intellectual Disability. Cerebral palsy is the second most common developmental disability, followed by Autism Spectrum Disorder. Other developmental disabilities may include:

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Angelman Syndrome
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Central Auditory Processing Disorder
  • Down Syndrome
  • Expressive Language Disorder
  • Fragile X Syndrome
  • Landau-Kleffner Syndrome
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Seizure Disorders
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Williams Syndrome

Intellectual Disabilities

According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, ID is characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning (reasoning, learning, problem solving) and in adaptive behavior, which covers a range of everyday social and practical skills. This type of disability originates before the age of 18.

ID can be caused by any condition that impairs development of the brain before birth, during birth, or in the childhood years. Hundreds of causes of ID have been identified. However, for approximately one-third of those affected, the cause of their disability remains unknown.

Causes of ID include:

  • Pregnancy/delivery problems  (drugs, malnutrition, illness, prematurity)
  • Early childhood diseases and accidents
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS)
  • Exposure to toxins and other environmental health hazards
  • Genetic anomalies and disorders

Although developmental disabilities can cause difficulties with major life activities such as language, mobility, learning, self-help, and independent living, many people with ID grow up to lead independent lives. The remaining minority with ID, those with IQs under 50, have significant limitations in functioning. With early intervention, a functional education, and appropriate support as an adult, however, individuals with ID can lead full and satisfying lives.

Intellectual disability occurs when a person has difficulty with general mental abilities. This may impact their:

  • Intellectual functioning, such as their learning, judgment, problem solving, abstract thinking, memory, reasoning, and academic skills
  • practical functioning, which refers to the ability to function and take care of oneself independently, such as performing personal care tasks, managing money, and performing work, school, or home tasks
  • social functioning, which refers to the ability to function normally in society by using skills such as social judgment, communication, understanding and following social rules and cues, understanding the consequences of one’s actions, and making friends.

Three areas of practical/adaptive functioning are considered:

  1. Conceptual – language, reading, writing, math, reasoning, knowledge, memory
  2. Social – empathy, social judgment, communication skills, the ability follow rules and the ability to make and keep friendships
  3. Practical – independence in areas such as personal care, job responsibilities, managing money, recreation and organizing school and work tasks

Some common symptoms of intellectual disability include:

  • reaching developmental milestones — such as sitting up, crawling, walking, or talking — later than other children
  • difficulty speaking or reading
  • difficulty understanding or following social rules or cues
  • difficulty understanding the results or consequences of their actions
  • difficulty solving problems, thinking logically, or thinking abstractly
  • difficulty planning or following schedules or routines
  • difficulty remembering things
  • difficulty letting others know their needs
  • difficulty understanding systems such as the need to pay for things, time, or how to use a phone
  • difficulty with social skills
  • a reduced ability to perform regular personal care, such as eating, getting dressed, or completing household tasks
  • limited functioning in one or more daily activities
  • reduced judgment and decision making skills
  • difficulty learning from experience
  • communicating using nonverbal means, such as expressions and gestures
  • difficulty regulating emotions and behaviors

Related and co-occurring conditions

Some mental health, neurodevelopmental, medical and physical conditions frequently co-occur in individuals with intellectual disability, including cerebral palsy, epilepsy, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and depression and anxiety disorders. Identifying and diagnosing co-occurring conditions can be challenging, for example recognizing depression in an individual with limited verbal ability. However, accurate diagnosis and treatment are important for a healthy and fulfilling life for any individual.

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Social communication disorder
  • Specific learning disorder
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. ADHD also affects many adults. Symptoms of ADHD include inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex developmental condition that involves persistent challenges in social interaction, speech and nonverbal communication, and restricted/repetitive behaviors. The effects of ASD and the severity of symptoms are different in each person.

ASD is usually first diagnosed in childhood with many of the most-obvious signs presenting around 2-3 years old, but some children with autism develop normally until toddlerhood when they stop acquiring or lose previously gained skills. Autism is a lifelong condition. However, many children diagnosed with ASD go on to live independent, productive, and fulfilling lives. The information here focuses primarily on children and adolescents.

Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism differs from person to person in severity and combinations of symptoms. There is a great range of abilities and characteristics of children with autism spectrum disorder — no two children appear or behave the same way. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and often change over time.

Characteristics of autism spectrum disorder fall into two categories.

  • Social interaction and communication problems: including difficulties in normal back-and-forth conversation, reduced sharing of interests or emotions, challenges in understanding or responding to social cues such as eye contact and facial expressions, deficits in developing/maintaining/understanding relationships (trouble making friends), and others.
  • Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviors, interests or activities:
    hand-flapping and toe-walking, playing with toys in an uncommon way (such as lining up cars or flipping objects), speaking in a unique way (such as using odd patterns or pitches in speaking or “scripting” from favorite shows), having significant need for a predictable routine or structure, exhibiting intense interests in activities that are uncommon for a similarly aged child, experiencing the sensory aspects of the world in an unusual or extreme way (such as indifference to pain/temperature, excessive smelling/touching of objects, fascination with lights and movement, being overwhelmed with loud noises, etc), and others.

Also, while many people with autism have normal intelligence, many others have mild or significant intellectual delays. Additionally, people with ASD are at greater risk for some medical conditions such as sleep problems, seizures and mental illnesses.

Diagnosis and Risk Factors

Early diagnosis and treatment are important to reducing the symptoms of autism and improving the quality of life for people with autism and their families. There is no medical test for autism. It is diagnosed based on observing how the child talks and acts in comparison to other children of the same age. Trained professionals typically diagnose autism by talking with the child and asking questions of parents and other caregivers.

The identified possible red flags for autism spectrum disorder in young children, including:

  • Not responding to his/her name by 12 months of age
  • Not pointing at objects to show interest by 14 months
  • Not playing “pretend” games by 18 months
  • Avoiding eye contact or preferring to be alone
  • Getting upset by minor changes
  • Flapping their hands, rocking their body or spinning in circles
  • Having unusual and sometimes intense reactions to the way things smell, taste, feel and/or look.

If there is a strong concern that your child is showing possible signs of autism, then a diagnostic evaluation should be performed. This typically involves an interview and play-based testing with your child done by a psychologist, developmental-behavioral pediatrician, child psychiatrist or other providers. 

Tips For Parents

  • Learn as much as possible about autism spectrum disorder
  • Provide consistent structure and routine
  • Connect with other parents of children with autism
  • Seek professional help for specific concerns
  • Take time for yourself and other family members
Having a child with autism affects the whole family. It can be stressful, time-consuming and expensive. Paying attention to the physical and emotional health of the whole family is important.

What Is Specific Learning Disorder?

Specific learning disorder (often referred to as learning disorder or learning disability, see note on terminology) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that begins during school-age, although may not be recognized until adulthood. Learning disabilities refers to ongoing problems in one of three areas, reading, writing and math, which are foundational to one’s ability to learn.

An estimated 5 to 15 percent of school-age children struggle with a learning disability. An estimated 80 percent of those with learning disorders have reading disorder in particular (commonly referred to as dyslexia). One-third of people with learning disabilities are estimated to also have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Other specific skills that may be impacted include the ability to put thoughts into written words, spelling, reading comprehension, math calculation and math problem solving. Difficulties with these skills may cause problems in learning subjects such as history, math, science and social studies and may impact everyday activities.

Learning disorders, if not recognized and managed, can cause problems throughout a person’s life beyond having lower academic achievement. These problems include increased risk of greater psychological distress, poorer overall mental health, unemployment/under-employment and dropping out of school.


Learning disorders can only be diagnosed after formal education starts. To be diagnosed with a specific learning disorder, a person must meet four criteria.

1) Have difficulties in at least one of the following areas for at least six months despite targeted help:

  • Difficulty reading (e.g., inaccurate, slow and only with much effort)
  • Difficulty understanding the meaning of what is read
  • Difficulty with spelling
  • Difficulty with written expression (e.g., problems with grammar, punctuation or organization)
  • Difficulty understanding number concepts, number facts or calculation
  • Difficulty with mathematical reasoning (e.g., applying math concepts or solving math problems)

2) Have academic skills that are substantially below what is expected for the child’s age and cause problems in school, work or everyday activities.

3) The difficulties start during school-age even if some people don’t experience significant problems until adulthood (when academic, work and day-to-day demands are greater).

4) Learning difficulties are not due to other conditions, such as intellectual disability, vision or hearing problems, a neurological condition (e.g., pediatric stroke), adverse conditions such as economic or environmental disadvantage, lack of instruction, or difficulties speaking/understanding the language.

A diagnosis is made through a combination of observation, interviews, family history and school reports. Neuropsychological testing may be used to help find the best way to help the individual with specific learning disorder.

Types of Learning Disorders:

Learning disorder can vary in severity:


Some difficulties with learning in one or two academic areas, but may be able to compensate


Significant difficulties with learning, requiring some specialized teaching and some accommodations or supportive services


Severe difficulties with learning, affecting several academic areas and requiring ongoing intensive specialized teaching