What Is Early Intervention?

Speech therapist with small boy

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If your child was born with a disability or demonstrates early signs of one, they may be entitled to federally-funded services called Early Intervention (EI). EI services are managed by the states and provided by local agencies. As a result, EI services vary from place to place. Many EI services are free; in some cases they may be offered based on a sliding scale.

EI services are usually available after a child is evaluated, though children born prematurely or with known disabilities are sometimes automatically offered EI.

Specific services are provided on a case-by-case basis; some children need physical therapy, others need speech therapy, and others still need disability-specific supports and programs. In some cases, EI may also include supports and therapy for family members.

How Early Intervention Helps Children and Families

Researchers find that very young children can benefit from intensive therapies more rapidly than older children and adults.

"We know that earlier in a child’s life, the nervous system is more open to creating new pathways as proper interventions and enrichments are provided," explains Rebecca Mannis, PhD, a learning consultant at Ivy Prep. "When children are diagnosed properly early on, we’re able to find the right interventions and accommodations to help them grow. In addition, the process of advocating for services and programs is complex.  The sooner you get support, the better you’ll be able to plan for their needs over time."

The sooner you get support for your child, the better you'll be able to plan for their needs over time.

The purpose of EI is not to identify children as needing special education. In fact, EI can often ensure that a child will be able to enter the general education program without additional supports. Of course, some children who go through EI will also need special education or supports, particularly children with more severe issues, such as certain types of autism.

"By providing therapies and supports, children will then start to build strategies early, which will enhance their academic growth and development," Mannis adds. "If a child receives occupational therapy as an infant or toddler, the hope is that [these services] will strengthen motor systems so the child will find it easier to hold a pencil, scissors, etc."

What Early Intervention Looks Like and How to Request It

Early intervention services can vary from child to child. To start the process, parents can reach out through their pediatrician or connect with state programs to have their child evaluated. If an evaluation finds that a child qualifies for EI, parents work with their local agency to create an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP). That plan may include:

  • physical therapy
  • occupational therapy
  • speech therapy
  • social skills and/or play therapy
  • disability-specific therapies, supports, or programs
  • family-based services which may include parent training and/or therapies

While services may be provided in a therapy center or office, some therapists might also work with your child at home. EI is most effective when parents (and in some cases older siblings and/or grandparents) partner with therapists.

Official EI services end when a child turns 3, but it's important to know that your child will then have access to similar services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Rather than working through your state, however, you'll now work with your child's school district. Your district should be able to provide services similar to those you've been receiving through EI; in addition, they may also be able to provide therapeutic preschool and/or summer programs.

Autism and Early Intervention

Early Intervention is important for every child who needs it, but it may be particularly important for autistic children. That's in part because children with autism may struggle with social and communication skills, which are very important in early childhood education.

One of the most important goals of EI for autistic children is to establish back-and-forth communication. This can be accomplished in many different ways depending on the severity of symptoms and the preferences of the family and practitioners. Some examples include:

  • play therapy
  • speech therapy
  • social skills therapy
  • use of picture-based print or digital tools
  • use of sign language

When a child with autism is able and willing to communicate, it becomes much easier to teach skills of daily living, build emotional bonds, and engage with same-age peers. Without communication or social skills, it can be tough for some autistic children to be part of a typical class when they enter school.

A Word From Verywell

If your child is slow to reach developmental milestones, you may wonder whether it's a good idea to seek an evaluation. While there is always the possibility that your child will catch up on their own, it's best to seek a professional's opinion if you have concerns. Be sure to talk to your child's pediatrician or healthcare provider if you have questions.

The bottom line is that you and your child have everything to gain, and nothing to lose, from an evaluation. If the evaluation shows normal development, it's great news. If there are significant delays or the evaluation team makes a diagnosis, your child will benefit greatly from early, intensive therapies.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is "early intervention"?.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why act early if you're concerned about development?

  3. Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. About IDEA.

  4. Zwaigenbaum, L., Bauman, M. L., Choueiri, R., Kasari, C., Carter, A., Granpeesheh, D., et al. (2015). Early intervention for children with autism spectrum disorder under 3 years of age: Recommendations for practice and researchPediatrics, 136(Suppl 1), S60–81. doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-3667E

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.