Early Intervention: Assistive Technology for Motor Intervention

Lori Potts, PT | November 2013

A little girl in an assistive technology device smiles at her sister who leans in close to her face. Assistive technology (AT) is defined as any device which increases, maintains, or improves the functional capabilities of an individual with special needs. Providing AT for young children with disabilities makes a significant difference towards their long-term independence goals. In the early intervention setting, AT enables children to more fully integrate into their home, school, and community activities. Although there is growing awareness of the value of AT in early intervention, it is often underutilized. This is where therapists can make a big difference. We need to advocate for the appropriate use of AT as early as possible.  

We need to work with service providers who are knowledgeable about the availability and use of assistive technology and who have a thorough and understanding of the process of acquiring AT for this population. This involves identifying a need, doing an AT assessment, selecting the product, and then processing the AT request through an appropriate funding source. Additionally we need to collaborate with the child’s parents so we understand their concerns, needs and goals for their child. This means involving the family in decision-making and intervention strategies and training the parents in the purpose and use of AT devices. Working with the family helps us create a valuable child-centered therapy approach within the home.

In early intervention, decision-making and the use of assistive technology is now based on an outcome-driven model. Intervention strategies focus on promoting attainment of the desired outcome or task, maximizing the child’s independence and participation in activities. In this approach, AT is not just incorporated when attempts toward remediation and facilitation fail to show progress. Rather, AT is utilized immediately within the context of the task and with the purpose of supporting full participation in all activities. AT supports certainly need not be permanent, and if the child shows progress these supports can be decreased to encourage independence.

This contemporary, activity-based approach has its roots in current understanding of neurological and motor learning research. Evidence indicates that a child with disabilities acquires skills through increased practice (repetition) in contextually relevant environments and through problem-solving. Supported functional activity will provide practice and experience that enables the targeted motor skill or behavior to emerge.

Motor learning and motor development are processes that are closely interconnected and it is not possible to separate the functional outcomes that are the result of learning from those that are the result of development. Regardless, active motor learning processes are significant and essential in the acquisition of developmental skills. Therefore, service providers, therapists and families should plan effective movement experiences that promote motor learning within the context of the child’s daily routine and natural environment.

As continual advances are made in assistive technology, it is imperative that clinicians make full use of their qualifications and their role to implement activity-based services and promote participation and function for the youngest children using assistive technology. As clinicians with the power to intervene for children with disabilities and impact their life-long outcomes, it is important to be informed.

This introductory summary draws heavily on the following sources, which I recommend:

Utilizing AT in Early Intervention

1. Long TM, Huang L, Woodbridge M, Woolverton M, Minkel J. (2003) Integrating Assistive Technology Into an Outcome-Driven Model of Service Delivery. Infants and Young Children 16(4):272-283 690kb .pdf

2. Long TM, Perry DF. (2008) Pediatric PTs’ Perceptions of Their Training in Assistive Technology. Physical Therapy 88(5):630-639 154kb .pdf

3. Weintraub H, Bacon C, Wilcox M. (2004) AT and Young Children: Confidence, Experience, and Education of Early Intervention Providers. Research Brief Volume 1, Number 2. Tots n Tech Research Institute.


Activity-Focused Motor Intervention


1. Mahony G, Robinson C, Perales F. (2004) Early Motor Intervention: The Need for New Treatment Paradigms. Infants & Young Children 17(4):291-300 430kb .pdf

2. Valvano J, Rapport MJ. (2006) Activity-focused Motor Interventions for Infants and Young Children with Neurological Conditions. Infants & Young Children 19(4):292-307 355kb .pdf

3. Whinnery KW, Whinnery SB. (2007) MOVE Systematic Programming for Early Motor Intervention. Infants & Young Children 20(2):102-108 138kb .pdf

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