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Many Young Children with Autism Not Getting Early Treatment


An estimated one in 68 children is affected by Autism spectrum disorder in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism is a complex developmental disorder that can cause problems with thinking, feeling, communication and social interaction. Early treatment can help, but many are not getting it, according to new research.


Early intervention and treatment with evidence-based treatments when a child is very young can improve a child’s development and make a significant difference in the child’s life. Behavioral intervention, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA), can improve learning, communication and social skills.

According to Autism Speaks, a national advocacy and education organization, among the features of a good early intervention program are:

  • The intervention focuses on social skills, language and communication, imitation, play skills, daily living and motor skills.
  • The program actively engages parents in the intervention, both in decision making and the delivery of treatment.
  • The therapy is guided by specific learning objectives, and progress is regularly evaluated and recorded.
  • The child receives structured, therapeutic activities for at least 25 hours per week.

Despite the known benefits of early intervention, most young children with autism are not getting the recommended treatments, according to a new study published in Psychiatric Services in Advance led by Nalin Payakachat, Ph.D., with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Researchers looked at nearly 3,000 toddlers (under age 3 ) and preschoolers (3 to less than 6 years) diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and enrolled in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network registry between 2008 to 2013. They looked at the services used by these young children and factors associated with service use.

Most children (79 percent) had received at least one service. However, only 28 percent of the children had received behavioral services. One in five children with autism had not received any evidence-based services.

Where to Start: Evaluation through Early Intervention

Even if your child has not been diagnosed with an ASD, he or she may be eligible for early intervention treatment services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says that children under the age of 3 years who are at risk of having developmental delays may be eligible for services.

You can ask for an evaluation through the early intervention system in your state.

Learn more and find your state contact.

The average number of hours of service per week for the children with autism, across several locations in the study, ranged from 3.1 to 9.5 hours. Among children that did receive some service, only 23 percent spent more than 10 hours per week using behavioral therapy or other services associated with better outcomes. Children identified as having an intellectual disability and non-white children were less likely to have used behavioral services.

The most frequent intervention reported was speech therapy, followed by occupational therapy and behavioral services. Over the period of the study, the researchers found that the use of behavioral services increased.

The study authors concluded that increased use of early interventions should be encouraged particularly among low income, non-white children and children with intellectual disability.

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