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Why Does Early Intervention Work?

A child’s development can be negatively affected essentially by three basic factors – something that interferes with the brain, something that interferes with the child’s body (and these two are often closely connected) and an environment that does not provide the essentials for the child to develop the skills that are commonly needed in our society. In relation to the environment, we are all essentially a Tarzan. Whatever home we are born into will be the one that moulds our skills.

“Genie” was a deprived child who had been deliberately kept from normal social experience and stimulation. From the age of about 20 months she had been isolated in a small closed room, tied to a potty chair for most hours of the day, and sometimes also at night. She had been kept essentially naked, and when not in the potty chair, she was kept in a covered baby cot. The door was kept closed and the windows curtained. She had been fed only cereal and baby food by her mother and only minimally cared for. There was no radio or TV in the house. She was physically punished if she made any sounds. Genie was found and taken into police and then protective custody when she was 13 years and 9 months old. She was unsocialised, primitive, emotionally disturbed, unlearned and without language. She looked about half her age, was unable to stand up, could not chew even semi-solid food, had difficulty swallowing and was incontinent of faeces and urine. At birth and again at 11 months, according to the paediatrician’s notes, she had been a normal baby.

Language tests that were given 11 months after she was found showed that she could, by then , understand and produce several words. One problem in making words was that she did not have neuromuscular control over her vocal chords. While other babies were learning to play with and control their voice, she was learning to repress all sound. In addition, the absence of all but the most minimal stimulation and motor movement meant that her brain did not receive the normal impulses from the body to grow and make connections. Since there is a critical period for the development of most skills (including language), and Genie’s brain was actively inhibited from assuming its functions when the chance arose, she would probably stay in a disabled state for the rest of her life.
Vulnerable children are those whose development is threatened by environmental or biological circumstances.

There are a large number of risk factors and therefore a large number of children who will potentially benefit from early intervention. The risk factors include – being born prematurely, being exposed to toxic substances, catching an infection that can affect a vital part of the body (like the brain or the heart), having parents who are neglectful, abusive or have limited abilities themselves, and children raised in poverty.

Early intervention programs aim to intervene as early as possible to (i) minimise the impact of the child’s disability (eg learn to use toes instead of fingers) (ii) minimise ongoing risk factors (eg. teach parents helpful ways of understanding and helping their child) (iii) to help present development go in the direction that will be the foundation for future development (eg. strengthen muscles that will help a child walk in the future) (iv) to strengthen families (eg help them cope with the stresses and strains).

The very early years of a child’s life provide a unique opportunity to influence their development. When children are still very small, many parts of their body are still developing, and that development can be pushed along in certain directions. The specialists select from various approaches to develop a program that is specific to the needs of each child and family, and that has the appropriate intensity and timing, plus ongoing evaluations of its effectiveness.

The intervention itself will depend on assessments that need to be made of the child and the family. The very first line of assessment is the Maternal and Child Health Nurse in your area. Then there are public and semi-private organizations that provide assessments and interventions. In the public system, the Department of Human Services provide teams of specialists in local areas so that parents (and the specialists) do not have to travel too far. In Victoria this is called Specialist Children’s Services, which has teams of specialists who may all assess the child and then work out an intervention that targets that child’s specific difficulties. Some organizations have been started by parents who have seen a need, and then grow to fit wider needs. Noah’s Ark started off as a toy library for disabled children and now has many centres throughout Victoria that provide a wide variety of child and family interventions, including toys. There are similar organizations throughout Australia and generally the Western world.

Early intervention programs are mainly successful- results from large studies have found that they produce significant changes in children’s development. However, outcomes depend on the area of disability. Early motor development seems to be determined mainly by biological factors, with medical, not environmental factors being the most reliable predictors of development. Yet even in motor development, studies by physiotherapists which are based on the latest understanding of how development proceeds are still underway. Cognitive and language development seem to be determined more by environmental than biological factors, which suggests that early intervention with families is really effective. The one area of research that has been relatively neglected is social competence, and new research is needed for that.

The one thing that early intervention centres have in common is that they struggle to be properly funded. Many welcome (financial and practical) help from parents and others. There are invariably frustrations with services that are underfunded, and these include long waiting lists. This should be an incentive to you to be quite proactive in following up any concerns you have so that you can be on that waiting list as soon as possible. Bureaucratic frustrations are a small price to pay for services that can make a difference to your child’s future.

(Article courtesy of Premmie Press, September 2005)

VIC GOV Early Intervention Services

If you are interested in finding out more about the Early Intervention programmes in your area then Information on services can be obtained between 9am and 5pm Monday to Friday through the Department of Human Services statewide phone number 1800 783 783 (and ask for Specialist Children’s Services). Early Childhood Intervention Services in your area (Better Health Channel, Vic Gov).

Alternatively, if you know which Department of Human Services region you live in, you can contact your local service using the following phone numbers:

Eastern Metropolitan Region
Box Hill Phone (03) 9843 6238
Ringwood Phone (03) 9845 8050

Northern Metropolitan Region
Phone (03) 9479 0578 / 9479 0121

Southern Metropolitan Region
Phone 1300 720 151

Western Metropolitan Region
Phone (03) 9275 7500

Grampians Region
Phone (03) 5333 6530

Barwon South Western Region
Phone (03) 5333 6530

Phone (03) 5561 9444

Phone (03) 5226 4540

Gippsland Region
Phone (03) 5136 2400

Loddon-Mallee Region
Phone (03) 5444 9950

Hume Region
Phone 1300 650 152

(Copyright Department of Human Services Website)

Early Intervention Programme
Noah’s Ark Early Childhood Intervention Program was established in 1971 and is an incorporated not for profit community organisation. It is the largest statewide agency in the early childhood intervention sector. The Noah’s Ark vision is “a society where families and children are valued in their diversity and respected and included within their community”

Noah’s Ark is a not for profit, statewide community organisation assisting children with disabilities and their families. It provides a range of services to children, young people and their families.

Services operate from 17 sites across Victoria and include –
Early Childhood Intervention Programs for babies and children up to 6 years of age including:

  • Group programs
  • Individual therapy / education
  • Family Support

Transition support to early childhood services and schools to children and young people in Commonwealth funded child care services includes:

  • Training
  • Resource development
  • Consultants supporting childcare services

Additional resources

  • Specialist equipment and toys
  • Toy and Equipment Library for children aged 0 to 6 years.
  • Recreation activities and Camps for young people aged 7 to 21 years .
  • Activities for Siblings – weekend camps for 7 to 13 year olds.

Eligibility for Noah’s Ark early childhood intervention services
A child is eligible for early childhood intervention services if he / she is:

  • Under 6 years of age, and has a developmental delay which meets the following criteria:
  • The delay is attributable to an intellectual, physical or sensory impairment.
  • The delay has implications for long term significant functional limitations in one or more of the following areas: Receptive and expressive language, Cognitive Development, Motor Development, Self care and independence and Social Behaviour

Noah’s Ark group programs are based on a philosophy of whole family inclusion, responsiveness to family needs whilst meeting the holistic needs of the child. Groups are facilitated by a team of professionals and may include, Occupational Therapist, Physiotherapist, Speech Pathologist, Early Childhood Teacher, Dance Movement Therapist and Social Worker.

Families who access Noah’s Ark Early Childhood Intervention Programs are invited to identify the issues which are for them the most important at the time. Families and staff draw up a plan with shared goals for the child. Your child’s developmental level and your priorities will assist you and staff in determining the most suitable services for you and your child.

For the nearest service to you please see or phone Windsor on (03) 9529 1466.

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