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At the age of 3 years, children with autism can start preschool through the public schools. Children continue to develop communication and play skills at this age and parents may be thinking about opportunities to play and interact with other children. School provides one opportunity as well as other community settings. In the early years, it is recommended that children receive many hours of intervention services with providers that know how to work with children with autism. School can count toward this. Many teachers have training and expertise in working with autistic children. Children may get some services, such as speech and occupational therapy, through the school. They may also continue to get intervention services outside of school. 

What Should My Child Be Doing?

  • At each age, children are expected to have certain skills in different areas of development, such as motor (walking, running), communication (using words), social (smiling, imitating), and/or play (imitation, pretend). Knowing what your child should be doing at each stage of development can help you know if your child needs help. It can also help you identify goals to work toward for your child and what kind of help your child may need. 
  • As children transition to preschool age, they communicate more (speaking, gestures), have more play skills (independent and with other children), and begin to do more activities independently (dressing themselves, eating).
Milestones and early signs of autism

What Services Might My Child/Family Want or Need?

A child’s services should fit with the child’s age and goals and the family’s values and needs. A child who is not yet talking will need services to help them communicate and talk, such as speech therapy or autism-specific intervention. A child who has difficulty walking may need physical therapy and a child who has difficulty sleeping or eating may need help from a pediatrician. See below for descriptions of services and targeted areas for this age group. 

A speech therapist works on speech and communication delays, practices early play skills, and may work on swallowing/eating problems. See below to find speech therapists in your area.

Find a speech therapist in your area by entering “speech” under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Many different autism interventions have been shown through research to be effective in helping children improve social skills, communication, and play. For young children, most interventions include working with parents (such as parent coaching), are play-based, and can be done during daily home routines. These are often called naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions (NDBI) and are a type of applied behavior analysis (ABA). 

Overview of evidence-based practices Video on choosing an evidence-based practice Videos on evidence-based practices

The Autism Society of America has a list of interventions and also provides questions to ask to determine which intervention or provider may be best for you:

Interventions and Therapies

Find an autism provider in your area by entering “aba” or “TEACCH” under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Physical Therapists work on motor issues like posture, toe-walking, and walking and running skills.

Find a physical therapist in your area by entering “physical therapist” under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Occupational therapists work on sensory issues such as tolerating sound, touch, smell, and taste problems. They also work on fine motor skills like drawing and using their hands. They also work on feeding issues and help with learning self-help skills.

Find an occupational therapist in your area by entering “occupational therapist” under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Care navigators, care coordinators, or referral specialists help families find available services and resources to meet the needs of their child and family. Autism service agencies, such as TEACCH and The Autism Society of North Carolina, offer resources and referral support to families living in North Carolina. In addition, health plans may offer care coordination services. Information on Medicaid-managed care can be found below. You may also want to contact your health plan to determine if they offer care coordination services.

The Autism Society of North Carolina has referral specialists. Connect with an Autism Society of North Carolina Referral Specialist and complete the form:

ASNC Resource and Referral Specialists

The UNC TEACCH Program has resource and referral specialists as well. To talk with a resource and referral specialist at TEACCH, contact your local TEACCH Center.

TEACCH Autism Resource and Referral Specialists

The tailored plan through Medicaid-Managed Care will also offer care navigation. Find more information

Tailored plan information

Parents may be interested in getting support and information from other parents. Support groups are often a good way to connect with other parents and learn about available services and resources. For more information, on support groups in your area, see below.

Autism Support Groups - Autism Support Services

There are also support groups specifically designed for Black Families in North Carolina:
FACES for Autism

The Family Support Network connects parents with other parents to offer guidance and support:

Family Support Network of NC

Find directories that list support groups and parent support in North Carolina:

Work Together NC - Find Services

Find parent support in your area by entering parent support under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Where Can Services be Delivered?

Services can be delivered in different locations. Some service providers may come to a family’s home or a daycare, some may work in a clinic and the child may need to travel to get services. Telehealth is another way services can be provided if the health plan will cover this option. While telehealth may not seem like it could work for a child, often the provider is working with the parent, particularly for young children. They may watch the child and parent play and offer suggestions for the parent to try with the child, working towards the child’s goals. Click below to find service providers in your area and remember to ask about the possible locations. 

Find services providers in your area Enter the type of service you are looking for under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

What Agencies Provide Services In My Area?

At age 3, children transition from services from the CDSA to services from the school system.

The public school system provides free educational services to preschool-age children who have developmental delays, special needs, or autism. Learn more about public school services in North Carolina and to find your county contact visit the Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center (ECAC) website:

ECAC Find Resources By County 

Find services in your area by entering the type of service you are looking for under keyword search and your zipcode under location.

Autism Society of NC Resource Directory Autism Speaks Resource Guide (enter your state and your child’s age)

Smart Start is a private/public partnership that is community-based and helps ensure young children have access to affordable childcare, early intervention services, and programs that help prepare them for school. 

Find Smart Start in Your Community

If you are on Medicaid, your MCO can provide care management

Find your local MCO contact

How do I Pay for Services?

There are different ways to pay for services. Some programs are publicly funded, and the family does not need to pay, such as services through the school system. Health plans or health insurance often fund part or all the cost of certain services. Although it may be expensive, families may also have the option to pay for the service themselves. If a family is not able to pay for a service, there may be grants available to help cover the cost. 

Most children have health care coverage. This may be Medicaid or a private health plan such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, United Healthcare, or Aetna. A few things to know about health plans. There is a medical plan that covers medical services, such as pediatricians, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. There is also a mental health plan that covers psychological testing and therapy, to treat mental health conditions.

All families have medical and mental health coverage. There are also autism or ABA benefits, which are a carve-out of the mental health plan. While all health plans have to offer ABA benefits in North Carolina, not all families have the coverage. In North Carolina, Medicaid covers autism services and therapy. To learn more about your health plan’s benefits, contact your health plan and ask about ABA benefits. 

Learn more about Medicaid funding in NC
Children with a developmental delay or disability are often eligible for free school services starting at three years old.

Special education preschool servicesReferral information for special education servicesFind preschool coordinator in your NC school district

The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center has a lot of information about special education services.

Information about special education services
Some families with a child with autism or developmental delays may be eligible for Social Security Income (SSI). In addition to having a documented developmental disability, there are income requirements

SSI websiteSSI and additional funding resources
The Innovations Waiver is designed to provide funding to support a child with disabilities in the community. Eligibility is based on an individual having a developmental disability and their level of need, it is not based on income. While your child may not need this as a toddler, there is a long waitlist, and applying early is recommended. In addition, it may open the door for other services and support. 

Innovations Waiver and How to apply Innovations Waiver and How to apply Guide by ASNC.

Families apply for Innovations waiver through their Managed Care Organization (MCO).

Find your MCO/LME
There are also sometimes grants and agencies that provide funding to families in need, to help them cover the costs of services, as they can be expensive. 

First in Families has fourteen regional chapters across North Carolina and helps families get what they need to participate in their community.

First in Families

Autism Care Today is a national program that provides grant funding of up to $5000 to families. They directly provide funding to the identified treatment providers to cover the cost of services.

Autism Care Today

What Community Programs May Be Helpful?

Families may be looking for programs that will provide social opportunities, childcare or support motor skills. These may include community programs like daycares, mommy and me programs, recreational programs, or churches. Some programs may be listed in your local family guides or parks and recreation department websites. Make sure to check for words like inclusive or individualized and ask about accommodations made for children with special needs. 

Search for daycares in your area Search for recreational programs in your area

Many museums, aquariums, and parks in North Carolina have sensory-friendly days.

Find sensory-friendly events and places

Special Olympics North Carolina has a Young Athletes program offered through Head Start centers and elementary schools across the state. Children two to seven can participate in Young Athletes. 

Young Athletes
The Autism Faith Network has many resources for how to make a faith community accessible for children with autism. You may also find various family and social support programs in your home church or faith community.

What Can I Do While I Wait?

Book on intervention strategies for young children with autism 

An Early Start for Your Child with Autism: Using Everyday Activities to Help Kids Connect, Communicate, and Learn
Aaron and Me: Our Journey on the Spectrum – a children’s book sharing the perspective of being a sibling of an autistic individual
 Evidence-based early intervention for young children with autism

TIPS for Early Learners (TEACCH Tips flyer) Communication tip Increasing social engagement Summer play ideas Toy recommendations Photo library of activities for children with autism
Daily activities, routines, and resources can be very useful, but sometimes overwhelming for parents and children. The Thrive App was created by a North Carolina Black mother of two young boys with Autism to help families with visual planning and emotional regulation by supporting the way they need to plan and manage their day-to-day activities
 Evidence-based early intervention for young children with autism

Autism Society of North Carolina for local support groups FACES is a support group designed specifically for Black Families to navigate services for their child with autism

Family Support Network of North Carolina offers peer support by pairing caregivers with lived experience of caring for a loved one with a disability or special healthcare needs

Family Support Network of NC

The Color of Autism offers support groups and trainings

The Color of Autism
This website does not endorse any particular programs, books, or authors. We intend to provide some resources that may be helpful to families along their journey.

BFAST is a UNC TEACCH Autism Program project in collaboration with the Autism Society of NC and the Frank
Porter Graham Child Development Institute made possible through funding from the C Felix Harvey Foundation

BFAST partnership logos - UNC TEACCH Autism Program logo, Autism Society of North Carolina logo, and the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute