Imagine finding out that your beautiful new baby had a developmental problem or a congenital disease. Would you know where to turn for help? Would you wonder how you would find the money to pay for specialized care for your child? It’s a scary thought, but for some parents it’s an everyday fact of life. Luckily, there is at least some cost-free help for infants with disabilities, in the form of Early Intervention programs.
Early Intervention (EI) programs are federal and state funded programs available to all infants and toddlers with disabilities. The programs came about under the 1986 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which provided federal funding to states who established EI programs under a certain set of guidelines. The programs are meant to help progress the disabled child’s development, aid their independence, minimize the need for special education, and to help families be able to better meet their kid’s needs.
One of IE’s main benefits is how it fills a huge gap in care for at-risk kids, at a crucial moment in that child’s development. Think about it—once your kid is old enough for preschool or head start, they will be eligible to receive professional help from speech therapists and trained early childhood instructors. But what about before then? Especially if the child is only exhibiting developmental delays and has not been diagnosed with a disorder, the parent might not know where to turn for help. And, if the money’s not there to pay for that extra help, the parents are even less likely to seek it out. The result of this? A child exhibiting special needs doesn’t have those needs addressed early on—letting them go on untreated, potentially getting worse.
The National Early Intervention Longitudinal Study followed up with thousands of kids who received care through EI, and charted the ways EI helped further their development. One of the largest improvements was in the area of communication. 30% of parents reported that their child was better able to express their needs and to talk clearly, after EI. They also had improved developmental abilities, like being able to feed themselves, get dressed, and use the bathroom. For children who had come into EI with motor disabilities, 15% reported that they were better able to use their arms, hands, and feet at the end of their program.
Early Intervention’s benefits can be measured in the kid’s progress, but a perhaps equally important measure is the way it helps parents learn how to help their child, and to advocate for them. At the end of their involvement in EI, nearly all parents (96%) stated that they believed that they could help their child develop. More also felt that they could competently interact with professionals in order to get their child the services they needed. Another unsung benefit of EI: parents reported that they had more hope in their child’s future after their participation in the program.
How does this all add up for the future of a child with a disability? The borderline developmental disability case is the most drastic to consider. After Early Intervention, the child with mild disabilities is able to enter a regular kindergarten class, instead of special education. It has been shown that children develop more in both cognitive and social capacities when they are able to be in regular school rather than special education—thus, this child is better equipped to succeed and progress through each grade. Their parents are able to find them a tutor or speech pathologist who can help them outside of school.
The child who didn’t experience EI? They get shuttled into the dregs of special education, where they have trouble making friends and learning to the best of their ability. The gap only continues to grow as the child goes through special education in the public school system. The parent doesn’t feel empowered to help–they feel that the special ed department is better equipped to help their child than they are. As you can see, the help of early intervention at the beginning of child’s life can mean big jumps in development–and a huge difference in their quality of their life.
Guest post by Joy Paley.