Early Childhood

Early childhood refers to children aged birth through eight years.  During these years, children learn and develop with supportive and responsive parents, family members, childcare providers, preschool teachers, and others in the community.  It is during this time great changes take place in their thinking (cognitive), physical (gross and find motor), self-help (adaptive), communication (using and understanding language) and social (interacting and relating to others) development.  Children also learn from being with other children during playdates, playing at the park, going to birthday parties, participating in outings in the community, and while attending childcare, mother’s day out and preschool programs.  This time of development lays the foundation for their future. 

Importance of Early Intervention

When a child is diagnosed with autism, parents may feel overwhelmed as they seek information about autism and determine the best options for accessing services for their child.  Research is clear that early intervention is important for helping a child with autism achieve their potential.  However, what early intervention services look like can vary based on the needs of each child and their family.

Early intervention for autism should focus on the core challenges related to autism.  This includes a focus on development of communication skills, social engagement with others, imitation skills, and addressing any restrictive or repetitive behaviors. 

Parents may choose multiple paths to address these core needs.  Intervention typically involves accessing therapy services either through a publicly funded program or through private therapy services.  Publicly funded programs in Oklahoma include SoonerStart, Oklahoma’s early intervention program for children birth to three years of age or special education services  through the local public schools for children aged three through 21 years.  The Oklahoma State Department of Education website provides information about early childhood education programs.  Private therapy includes therapy services funded by private pay or payment through private insurance or Medicaid.  Families may choose to seek private therapy services from one or more professional disciplines.  Some of the common therapy services for children with ASD include speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis.  Families may find a list of professional services on our provider directory.

One of the most important things to remember, particularly during these early stages, is that research is clear parents and primary caregivers have a tremendous impact on child development.  Regardless of which path a family chooses for intervention, it is critical that parents and caregivers are meaningfully involved in intervention services.  Meaningful involvement means parents are involved in a way that supports them to feel confident in supporting their child’s unique needs at home and in the community.  

Possible tips for creating meaningful involvement from caregivers could include:

  • Be welcoming.  Make the school, community group, or early intervention center inviting for parents and families.
  • Be intentional in creating ways to involve caregivers.  There are many caregivers who may want to be involved but either do not know how or are intimidated by formal settings. Create opportunities for parental participation.
  • Allow caregivers a voice in conversations and meetings.
  • Communicate often and keep caregivers well-informed.  Welcome and encourage two-way communication.

Building Your Village

As families start their autism journey, it is never too early to begin building natural supports.  Natural supports are those people or programs in your community that you and your child would access if there was not an autism diagnosis or concern. These can include family members, close friends, church, playgroups, sports programs, intentional social friends, etc.  Learning to identify and secure support within your family and community sets the stage for a lifetime of broadened experiences and decreases the chances of isolation.  

Some thoughts to consider as you start “Building Your Village”:

  • Start by looking at your existing natural supports.  Which of these do you want to expand on?  What areas do you see gaps and needs for added support?
     
  • You can start with family members. Who are you closest to in your family?  How have they responded to your child and you since the diagnosis or suspected diagnosis?
     
  • Develop a “contract” (this could be an agreement that occurs once a week and include going with you to challenging locations like the grocery store or providing child care while you run errands) with a family member or close friend.  Have that honest conversation regarding the challenges that parenting your child presents and provide strategies that work to address these challenges.
     
  • Find ways to “give back” to your support person (i.e., swap babysitting, etc)
     
  • Identify a neighbor or a parent of a child who goes to the same school, park, etc., Create opportunities for your child to interact with these peers by setting up playdates in activity locations that the child will enjoy.  Have a script about your child to answer questions that might come up during these playdates. This will increase the probability of positive and successful interaction.
     
  • Check with local colleges and church groups in your area.  Do they have a youth program or students in a similar degree program that would be willing to work with you on setting up play groups or provide respite?
     
  • Complete a One Page Profile from your child’s perspective.  Make multiple copies to give you those willing to become part of your village.

Importance of Play

Play is an essential skill for all children, but especially for children with autism. Playtime can be a time for children to practice cognitive skills, communication skills, and social skills. Play also provides children with meaningful ways to occupy their time and can make it less likely that a child will engage in challenging behavior. When children are engaged and motivated, it is easier for them to learn. This makes play a natural time to work on building skills. Imitation can be a skill that is heavily used during play.  For some children on the autism spectrum, the skills related to play may be challenging to learn due to the child having a difficult time imitating the actions of others.  This makes it particularly important that skills during play are intentionally focused on and practiced. To learn more about how to strengthen your child’s play skills and tips on engagement during play, you can download our play and leisure toolkit.

Importance of Effective Communication

When you think about communication, what comes to mind? For some, it may be the ability to express their wants and needs. For others, it may be the ability to listen and follow the instructions of others.

Communication can be verbal or non-verbal. We communicate our wants and needs in a variety of ways and it is important that we intentionally teach the same skills to individuals with autism. Does your child have the ability to express themselves by telling a story, making a request, commenting, and appropriately protesting? When individuals do not establish effective ways to communicate with a wide range of people, they will most likely engage in challenging behavior to communicate the best way they know how.

For more ideas on how to strengthen your child’s communication skills and what communication can look like, you can download our communication toolkit.

Transition From SoonerStart Early Intervention

Transition is the period of time when the SoonerStart team prepares the child and family for life when SoonerStart services end at age 3.  Children who are served under SoonerStart will begin the transition process at age 27 months or no later than 33 months.  Each family will work with their Resource Coordinator and Service Providers to develop a plan for needs and services for when early intervention services end. Your child’s Resource Coordinator will also notify the local school district of your child’s upcoming third birthday in the event that your child may be eligible for special education services. SoonerStart does not determine eligibility for school districts and the school district may do testing to determine your child’s eligibility for services in the school.

While the local school district in which a family resides is one option for families aging out of the SoonerStart program, families can consider other options for continued services.  They may look into a local Head Start program, continue or initiate private therapy services, a Mother’s Day Out program, or a child care option to name a few.  Some families choose a combination of a school- based program and outside services and programs.  Thinking of what goals and dreams you have for your child will be your guide as you work with the other members of your SoonerStart team to develop the plan that starts you on the road towards meeting these.  

When you have the transition planning meeting, think of who you would like to invite to the table to talk about the path you want your child to be on.  Having those important people there ensures that everyone has input and can help create the best plan.

Start with your goals and dreams and then work as a team to piece together the services and programs that puts your child on the path to achieving them.  You can learn more about this process by reading the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Transition Guide,

Child Care

Many children participate in child care programs.  Child care centers and family child care homes in Oklahoma are licensed through the Department of Human Services (DHS), Child Care Services .  The DHS, Child Care Services website provides information and resources including:

  • finding and assessing childcare
  • resources
  • child care benefits

For more information:

Contact Oklahoma Child Care Services by visiting their website or contact them at:

Email: childcare.occs@okdhs.org
Phone:  (405) 521-3561 or 1-800-347-2276

Additional resources

Commonly Asked Questions about Child Care Centers and the Americans with Disabilities Act from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section

Head Start

Head Start and Early Head Start are programs of the office of Head Start under the Administration of Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Their mission is to promote school readiness of young children from low income families in their local communities.  They serve children from birth to age five.  Head Start programs must meet Program Performance Standards to support the healthy cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children they serve.   The Standards also require at least 10 percent of each program's enrollment be children with disabilities who are eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).   The Standards also require progams to support children who have developmental delays but are not eligible under the IDEA.   Programs must work with parents so they can support their children's development.  For more information about their services, Program Performance Standards, and to find a program near you, visit: Office of Head Start website.

School

School options during the early childhood years include home school, private schools, and publicly funded schools.  For information about these options, visit our page on Life Span Supports, School.

Myths and Misconceptions

HeadStart and child care centers must comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act and cannot deny entrance to their program based on a child’s disability (unless it poses a threat to others). This includes children who are not currently independent in toileting.

Q: We diaper young children, but we have a policy that we will not accept children more than three years of age who need diapering. Can we reject children older than three who need diapering because of a disability?

A: Generally, no. Centers that provide personal services such as diapering or toileting assistance for young children must reasonably modify their policies and provide diapering services for older children who need it due to a disability. Generally speaking, centers that diaper infants should diaper older children with disabilities when they would not have to leave other children unattended to do so.

Child Care Centers must also provide diapering services to young children with disabilities who may need it more often than others their age. Some children will need assistance in transferring to and from the toilet because of mobility or coordination problems. Centers should not consider this type of assistance to be a "personal service."

Q: We do not normally diaper children of any age who are not toilet trained. Do we still have to help older children who need diapering or toileting assistance due to a disability?

A: It depends. To determine when it is a reasonable modification to provide diapering for an older child who needs diapering because of a disability and a center does not normally provide diapering, the center should consider factors including, but not limited to, (1) whether other non-disabled children are young enough to need intermittent toileting assistance when, for instance, they have accidents; (2) whether providing toileting assistance or diapering on a regular basis would require a child care provider to leave other children unattended; and (3) whether the center would have to purchase diapering tables or other equipment.

If the program never provides toileting assistance to any child, however, then such a personal service would not be required for a child with a disability. Please keep in mind that even in these circumstances, the child could not be excluded from the program because he or she was not toilet trained if the center can make other arrangements, such as having a parent or personal assistant come and do the diapering.

To read more visit: https://www.ada.gov/childqanda.htm


You do not have to have an autism diagnosis to begin receiving services.  

For many children with a suspected diagnosis of ASD, other delays in development are apparent.  These can include speech/communication delays, social delays, or issues regarding behavior and self- care.  These delays can be addressed through a developmental evaluation through SoonerStart (Oklahoma’s early intervention program) and services provided if a child qualifies while a diagnostic autism evaluation is pending.  If a child is older than 3 yrs., then specific evaluations and services for speech or occupational therapy can be provided by those individual service providers.  

To get ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) services, however, most insurance companies and SoonerCare do require an ASD diagnosis in order to pay for those services.  There is no reason why a child can’t begin services to address delays while waiting for a diagnosis and once received, can explore adding ABA services if needed.