If you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or if you work with this population of children, you’ve likely heard the term early intervention.
Why is it so important to start helping children with ASD as early as possible?
Researchers have been working hard to find signs that let us identify children earlier and earlier. And now that children are receiving diagnoses earlier, we are able to follow their language development from a young age and track their progress.
Two groups of researchers recently tracked the language skills of young children with ASD and compared them to their later abilities:
• Jessica Mayo and her colleagues from the University of Connecticut looked at 119 children with ASD between the ages of 16 and 30 months. They compared the timing of children’s first words with their abilities two years later. They considered a word to be a “first word” if it was a word other than “mama” or “dada” that was used in a meaningful, consistent way to send a message to someone (they did not include words that children could imitate but not say on their own).
These researchers found that children who spoke their first words earlier tended to have better abilities later in childhood. And, in particular, children who acquired their first words by 24 months tended to have stronger language and cognitive skills later on than children who didn’t meet this milestone.
• Andrew Pickles and his colleagues followed 192 children with ASD from the time they were 2 years old up until they were 19 years old. They noticed several interesting things:
o All of the children improved between ages 2 and 19, but their rate of improvement was quite varied before age 6 - some children started out with slow progress but made very good progress and surpassed other groups of children by age 6. Other groups of children had more stable progress over time.
o After age 6, the children’s progress was not varied- children continued to make improvements after age 6, but they maintained their developmental path (did not
surpass other groups’ progress but stayed on a stable track over time).
What this means is that before age 6, children with ASD make the most changes in their language development. And if we want to have the biggest impact on a child’s language development path, we need to start doing so before age 6.
The earlier, the better
The take-home message from these two studies is that the earlier children acquire language skills, the better their outcomes tend to be. Children who say their first words by 24 months tend to have better abilities later on, and children who show a lot of progress in their language development before age 6 tend to have better language skills as adults.
This research shows that the key time frame for children to make the most gains in their language skills is when they are younger than 6.