What to do if you suspect your child has a disability.

There are a variety of disabilities โ€” including autism, hearing impairment, speech and language disorders, and cerebral palsy โ€” with symptoms that may not be readily noticeable at birth. And while experts agree that the earlier a child begins treatment for even a mild disability, the better the prognosis, it often takes months or even years for parents to determine that there's a problem, have the child evaluated, and begin treatment. Unfortunately, many parents don't know what to do when they suspect a disability in their child.

Delays occur because detecting a disability early on is not always easy. Children can develop at different rates, which can vary depending upon prematurity, heredity, temperament, or body size. Whatever the cause, most children who exhibit mild delays turn out to be just fine.

Why early intervention for children's disabilities?

Researchers are discovering that early intervention services are critical to resolving a variety of developmental problems, says Leslie Rubin, MD, director of the division of developmental pediatrics and an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Brain research indicates that children learn most easily in the early years, and if opportunities are missed during critical periods, learning becomes more difficult. Early intervention can minimize the impact of the disability, and often means the child will require fewer services later in life.

Taking quick action not only boosts a child's development, it also strengthens families by providing parents with the skills they need to help their child. For example, physical therapy is much more effective if parents are taught how to incorporate it into the daily routine rather than limiting it to a weekly visit with a specialist. And early intervention enables parents to be linked to vital services such as parent support groups, counseling, and respite care.

Where can I find help?

If you suspect that your child has a problem, first talk with your pediatrician or family doctor. Remember, though, that many physicians are not trained to detect developmental difficulties in young children and may not know where to send you for help. If your doctor says there's nothing wrong or doesn't have a referral, there is an alternative. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, infants and toddlers with potential disabilities have the right to a free developmental assessment to determine whether they qualify for early-intervention services. You can find the early-intervention program in your area by calling your local school district or state department of education. You can also request a state resource list from the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY) in Washington, DC, at (800) 695-0285.