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Early Intervention Benefits Children with Special Needs

February 10, 2012
By

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The earlier the problem is discovered, the faster the intervention can bring meaningful positive changes to the child and the family.

Stephanie Stein

Director

Parents Services at Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center

When Hope Tucker’s son, Ta’Shawn, was 2 years old, he jumped away every time her “very affectionate” relatives hugged him.

Ta’Shawn did not like to play with other children, and he preferred to play with rocks rather than toys.

At age 3, Ta’Shawn was diagnosed with a form of autism.

Getting the diagnosis “was very important,” says Tucker, a single mom in Richmond. “Knowing there was something different about my son enabled me to help him, to find resources.”

Early intervention is key

“Early intervention (for children with special needs) can make a big difference,” says Stephanie Stein, director of Parents Services at Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center. “The earlier the problem is discovered, the faster the intervention can bring meaningful positive changes to the child and the family.”

After another child, Carolina, was diagnosed with special needs, she immediately started receiving therapy at home, according to her father, Rubén Ramírez of Woodland. Her family also received counseling to help them adjust to the diagnosis.

Carolina has made significant progress—and now their family has started helping others, he adds.

“If intervention starts early in the lives (of autistic children), you can really redirect their brain,” says Areva Martin, founder of Special Needs Network in South Los Angeles. Martin’s third child was diagnosed with autism at age 2.

Early diagnosis can also make it easier for the family to provide support, says Andrea Ando, a long-time early special education teacher with the Sacramento County Office of Education.

“A problem may get worse if it is not addressed,” Ando says. “If a baby has a delay in one area of development, it may affect other areas.”

Observe how your child develops

Parents can compare how their child is developing with “developmental milestones,” according to Ando.

Milestones are lists of what young children typically do at certain ages—how they play, learn, speak, behave and move—as well as potential signs for concern. Using milestones as a kind of checklist can help parents pinpoint concerns that might be related to special needs.

But do not be alarmed if a child does not do everything listed on the chart. Some children learn to walk or talk later than others, and differences may also be related to temperament or health needs.

When parents feel something is not quite right about their child’s development, it can be challenging to reach out about whether the child might have special needs. Parents may feel denial, guilt and even shame.

“Be strong,” advises Nancy Borquez, a Corona mother of a 14-year-old with autism. “Get over (your fears and) keep looking for help. You can do it, as I did.”

Have your child assessed for special needs

Parents should talk with their child’s doctor about any concerns related to their child’s development, and include as many details as possible, Ando suggests.

Parents can not only request visual, hearing and autism screenings, but also a translator, if needed.

The doctor can provide a referral to a specialist for a more in-depth evaluation of the child.

If the doctor dismisses the family’s concerns, parents should continue advocating for a referral. They can also contact special needs organizations directly about getting an assessment.

“Do not take just one opinion,” Tucker advises. “I took my son to three different doctors until I found an answer to (problems) I had noticed.”

During this time, her son was asked to leave two preschool programs. But a teacher also referred the family to Children’s Hospital for a special needs assessment. Ta’Shawn was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a disability within the spectrum of autism disorders.

For the Ramírez family, they were concerned when Carolina was not crawling at 8 months, and then did not make eye contact at 16 months.

“We tried to get an answer from our daughter’s pediatrician, and she kept saying everything was normal,” Ramírez recalls.

Cultural barriers and respect for the pediatrician made the parents reluctant to challenge the doctor, “even though the concerns stayed in our hearts,” he adds.

Then they had Carolina assessed at a Department of Developmental Services Regional Center, where she was diagnosed with special needs.

“Doctors do not know your child better than you do,” says Ayde Syed, a Sacramento mom to a 21-year-old daughter with cerebral paralysis and a 8-year-old daughter with borderline autism. “The first years are crucial to help (children) move forward and develop.”

Find support

Many organizations in California provide support for families of children with special needs. First Five, Head Start, Early Start and WIC agencies also provide support and guidance.

Children have the right to receive needed attention, including children who are uninsured or undocumented.

But disparities “exist despite all the mandated efforts that are in place,” Ando says. “We hear that families are not aware of our services or don’t know what to look for.”

After a child is diagnosed, special needs services can be hard to find, especially for families that speak languages other than English or are low-income.

When Martin’s son was diagnosed with autism, she noticed the lack of information and resources, access to quality therapists, and a “huge shortage” of professionals serving these communities.

“I had to spend a lot of time piecing” services together, Martin says.

So Martin started Special Needs Network, which provides support for underserved families and children with autism.

Martin advises parents to keep good records of children’s therapies, medical records and school meetings. She says another key skill is collaborating with other parents, therapists, organizations—and learning to temper emotional reactions.

“Find and reach out to grassroots groups that know how to get help,” Ramirez advises. “Reach out to other parents with special needs children. It is easier to talk to someone who already went through what you are experiencing.”

Thanks in part to the early support Tucker’s son received, the 14-year-old is now a straight-A student who loves arts and sings in the church choir.

“He has done all the things the doctors said he was not going to be able to do,” adds Tucker special needs organizations directly about getting an assessment.

“Do not take just one opinion,” advises Tucker. “I took my son to three different doctors until I found an answer to (problems) I had noticed.”

During this time, her son was asked to leave two preschool programs. But a teacher also referred the family to Children’s Hospital for a special needs assessment. Ta’Shawn was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a disability within the spectrum of autism disorders.

The Ramírez family was concerned when Carolina was not crawling at 8 months, and then did not make eye contact at 16 months.

“We tried to get an answer from our daughter’s pediatrician, and she kept saying everything was normal,” Ramírez recalls.

Cultural barriers and respect for the pediatrician made the parents reluctant to challenge the doctor, “even though the concerns stayed in our hearts,” he adds. Then they had Carolina assessed at a Department of Developmental Services Regional Center, where she was diagnosed with special needs.

“Doctors do not know your child better than you do,” says Ayde Syed, a Sacramento mom to a 21-year-old daughter with cerebral paralysis and a 8-year-old daughter with borderline autism. “The first years are crucial to help (children) move forward and develop.”

Thanks in part to the early support Tucker’s son received, the 14-year-old is now a straight-A student who loves arts and sings in the church choir.

“He has done all the things the doctors said he was not going to be able to do,” Tucker says.

Written by Maria Alvarez