By Robert F. Brogan, CELA

At one time, it was common for neurologists to wait until a child was about five to broach the topic of developmental delays with parents. Since children learn fastest during their early years, that meant that valuable time was lost, during which therapy might have reduced or reversed physical and cognitive problems. Acquiring language and motor skills becomes increasingly difficult as a child matures.

For that reason, in 1986, as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Congress established Early Intervention (EI). EI provides a broad array of services for children under three years of age, intended to facilitate their physical, cognitive, emotional and social development.

IDEA requires that children suspected of having delays receive a “timely, comprehensive, multidisciplinary evaluation” to determine their eligibility for speech and occupational therapy, psychological, vision and audiology services, and more. In most cases, there is little or no charge to the family.

I suggest that parents concerned about the rate of their child’s development ask their pediatrician to write a prescription for a full speech-language pathology evaluation, physical therapy evaluation and occupational therapy evaluation.

If those assessments indicate that a child is eligible for EI, the family and a team of professionals will jointly develop an “Individualized Family Service Plan,” which may include training and counseling for the parents and siblings. It’s important to understand that family members will play a central role in the child’s development, since they must actively reinforce the work of therapists. To the extent possible, services to the child should be delivered at home or in other settings in which the child typically spends time.

The concept of “individualized” is key. For example, I’m aware of cases in which children were intellectually capable of communication but lacked the muscle control to speak “on schedule.” They were “trapped” by their physical disability and would act out due to intense frustration. Teaching them sign language, though, enabled them to communicate while their bodies caught up.

Such is the power of early intervention, since 50 years ago, such children would have been institutionalized. That’s why it’s so important for parents to aggressively pursue the services which may be appropriate for their children. If you sincerely disagree with an evaluation and believe that your child could benefit from EI, it may be worthwhile to take legal action. While such a course can be lengthy and difficult, the more severe your child’s delays, the more you have to gain from advocacy. After all, EI can change the course of a child’s life.