Most of us who have children diagnosed with a special need are familiar with early intervention, or at least we ought to be. Starting at pretty much birth, medical providers begin asking parents questions regarding growth and development. As that baby ages, the questions change to reflect the appropriate developmental stage. And if there are any concerns about possible developmental delays around the 18th month appointment, then most doctors will refer parents to the local early intervention services in the area. In my experience, when the doctor became concerned that Noah who at 18 months hadn't progressed in his language development according to "normal" growth and development standards, I received a number to call that connected me with a social worker who would serve as his case manager, arranging evaluations and later therapy to help him progress. While every state's early intervention services differ in how they are organized, the goal remains the same: to provide early access to care and services so that young children under 3 have an opportunity to improve on developmentally-delayed skills.
Here are some things parents should understand when working with Early Intervention:
- Early Intervention is designed to provide services for children under 3. This means that if you have any concerns about your child's development, it's imperative to inquire about help as early as you can. Many children do not get the services they need when they have a developmental delay and often enter kindergarten very much behind the curve. Early Intervention is exactly what the name implies: it connects you to the right kind of care so that by the time the child is school-aged, they would've been exposed to the necessary services that has either led to a diagnosis or has supplied that child and his family with the tools necessary to help him or her adjust to the challenges that he or she experiences.
- Early Intervention is free, mostly. When Noah was receiving services through Early Intervention in the state of New Jersey, I was ask to supply our family's income to see if there would be a cost-share involved in Noah's therapeutic care. Some families, depending on their income had to pay a little out of pocket, but for most receiving care, Early Intervention services cost little to nothing. And even if you are one of the families who have to participate in a share cost, nothing is worth more than knowing that you are taking an active role in providing your child with the opportunity to overcome whatever obstacles might be in his or her way.
- Early Intervention is not where the road begins and ends. After your child turns three, or rather shortly before, Early Intervention will begin exploring the next phase of services should your child require it. This usually involves setting up testing and evaluations with the local school district to determine whether or not services are still needed. If it has been determined as such, the school district with supply your child with an IEP and he or she will be enrolled in the local school district's preschool program. In New Jersey and Hawaii, the preschool program was a part of the elementary school, but in Colorado Springs, the preschool had its own building, separate from the other elementary schools in the district, but still a part of the district. Depending on the findings, your child might qualify to be placed in a general education setting with option for pull out services, while some schools may only provide preschool education for those with documented disabilities and IEPs to support the need for special services.
- It is a good idea to get a second, or third opinion. Early Intervention provides great services to families needing care for a developmentally-delayed child. But as a parent, it is imperative to be sure that you reach out to another provider, whether that's your pediatrician or a specialist and request your own testing. It's great to have additional paperwork that will help your case, especially once your child turns three and he or she is being tested for the IEP. When Noah began Early Intervention, the state only provided him with a behavioral therapist which was fantastic. But I knew that Noah needed speech as well and when the state refused to provide it on account of him not being in the program for very long and also citing financial issues, I took it upon myself to get him testing for just about everything until I found someone to provide a diagnosis, ordering an hour of speech a week. When I had that piece of paper with that "prescription" on it, the state had no choice but to comply. We are still the parents, and we have to instrumental in ensuring that our child is receiving all the services for which he or she is entitled.
- Be an active participant. Lastly, although it should go without saying, parents and caregivers must be active participants in their child's services. Most Early Intervention therapists come to the house to provide care, although a lot also go into the preschool or daycare setting if that child is enrolled in such a program. I experienced both. It is so important to create and build a relationship with your child's providers so that you are aware of what he or she is working on with your child, and you can be educated so that you can continue that work in the therapist's absence. Most therapies are only once a week for about an hour or so, depending on the number of services the child is receiving. There are 6 other days in the week so it's a good idea to be aware of what your child is working on with his or her therapist so that you can provide that continuous care and support int he therapist's absence. Furthermore, it is critical that you are paying attention to your child so that you can provide his or her therapist with any information that may be pertinent to him being better able to interact with your baby. The stronger the relationship between you and the therapist, the better you can speak as your child's advocate once he or she turns 3 and services are turned over to the school district. A well-informed parent is the most dangerous advocate. Never forget that.
What has been your experience with Early Intervention? Loved it? Hated it? Remember that as parents of children with special needs, it is our duty to be the best advocates we can for them. And it's never too early to start.