When Congress passed IDEA, each state was given the authority to determine what services it would offer and whether it would contribute additional funding. As a result, states vary widely in what they provide -- and they don't always begin a child's therapy within the same time period. Many budget-strapped states have long lacked the money to keep up with demand, and the recession has only made matters worse. "Every child won't get the kind of intensive home program he needs," says Jan Blacher, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, and coeditor of The Handbook of Developmental Disabilities. Fortunately, the 2009 federal stimulus package provided an additional $500 million for early intervention programs in all 50 states. The funds began making a difference in the fall of 2009 and are continuing into 2010.
Private therapy is another option, but health insurers may refuse payment if a child's disability can't be traced to an injury or a disease, or they may set limits on the number of therapy sessions. Children are only eligible for early intervention until age 3. After that, they may get services through their school district's special education program, but kids with relatively mild disabilities often don't qualify because parents need to demonstrate that their child can't function in a classroom without the added assistance.
However, experts emphasize that parents also play a crucial role in helping their child at home. "One of the reasons why the early-intervention system has been so successful is that it is designed to help parents facilitate their child's development," says Katy Neas, vice president of government relations for Easter Seals, the nation's oldest organization dedicated to helping children with disabilities. "In therapy sessions, parents learn what they can do at home to help their child gain the skills he needs."
For example, Debra Schwartz, of Fairfield County, Connecticut, started reading books upside down. Her 1-year-old son, Joshua, has an auditory processing disorder, and his speech therapist wanted her to sit facing him and hold the book below her chin so that he could see both the pictures and her mouth forming the words. Schwartz had pursued services for Joshua when he was 9 months old because he wasn't responding to her voice even though tests had showed that his hearing was normal.
Therapists also help parents find activities to make skill-building fun. For 2-year-old Kean Zandona, of Tracy, California, that included jumping on the bed with his brothers to help strengthen his weak trunk muscles. "You should have seen the look on our older boys' faces," says his mom, Kris. "After years of nagging, we had finally gotten them to stop jumping on the bed!"
My own daughter's love of animals led us to enroll her in an "equine therapy" program. The weekly lessons not only strengthened her muscles but got her hooked on horseback riding. By second grade, Eva had also discovered an interest in acting that brought a seemingly miraculous improvement in her speech whenever she stepped on stage. Today, these and other newfound passions -- rather than her weaknesses -- have become the milestones that we use to mark each passing year.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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