Doctors in neighbourhood polyclinics and pre-school teachers will be trained to spot and screen children who are not reaching their developmental milestones, so the children can get help earlier.
In the next few years, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) will work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to form a network of touchpoints that can identify children with developmental conditions, such as speech and language delays and autism.
This way, the children can be referred more quickly for appropriate support, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday. "Timely and appropriate support in the early years of the children's lives can maximise their potential."
Mr Tan announced the scheme in a speech that focused on how the Government is seeking to build an inclusive society for the disadvantaged.
He stressed, for instance, that there is leeway for front-line officers to calibrate the amount and duration of ComCare assistance given to families with differing needs.
Total bill, up 0.4 per cent
Percentage of Social Service Office clients who live or work within 2km of an SSO.
Number of workers the social sector is projected to need by 2025
Number of childcare places available today
The move to equip doctors and pre-school teachers at the front line with skills to detect children with developmental problems comes amid a rise in the number of children with such issues.
The Straits Times understands that currently, the bulk of them are diagnosed by the Child Development Programme at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital.
Together with the National University Hospital, 4,000 new patients were identified in 2015.
This was a 60 per cent increase from around 2,500 new cases diagnosed in 2010, according to MOH.
The top four most common conditions are speech and language delays, autism spectrum disorders, behavioural problems and global developmental delay.
Now, polyclinics and family medicine practitioners will be trained in developmental screening. Pre- school teachers will learn the skills to detect children with such needs early. MSF did not disclose the number to be trained.
Children assessed and given early intervention therapy range from babies to those under seven years of age.
MOH attributed the rise in diagnosis to a greater awareness of developmental problems and an improved system of screening in pre-schools and in the community.
With more eyes on the ground, the hope is that even more children with needs can be detected early.
Ms Paula Teo, senior manager at Autism Association, said 90 per cent of children served by the association were diagnosed with autism when they were about two or three years old. The rest came to learn about their condition at age four or five.
Said Ms Teo: "Research (says) that earlier detection and intervention does improve outcomes. Neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behaviour and health, are most flexible... during the first three years of life.
"Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change."
The Autism Resource Centre said more than 90 per cent of children in its early intervention programme make progress in aspects such as communication.
Ms Iris Lin, assistant director at Fei Yue Community Services, said many parents of special needs children go straight to a hospital to get a diagnosis once they sense something is amiss.
"Parents are more sensitive and educated now, and if the child is not doing certain things he is supposed to do at a certain age, they have the child assessed," said Ms Lin. "With more community touchpoints, they can get a second opinion or get screened more conveniently."
Ms Sun Meilan's son was diagnosed with autism at age two after her friend noticed he was behaving differently and urged her to see a specialist.
Said Ms Sun, 44: "Even as a 'seasoned' mother of three children, I missed all the signs for my boy. The onus lies more on the parents but it will be good if doctors are more vigilant too."