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Handling Your Child's Disability

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

There are a variety of disabilities — including autism, hearing impairment, speech and language disorders, and cerebral palsy — 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.

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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.

When you make the call, explain your concern and request a developmental assessment. The evaluation is usually completed by a multidisciplinary team of professionals (which may include a speech and language pathologist, audiologist, physical therapist, and psychologist), in order to understand your child's strengths as well as any areas of difficulty. The assessment typically analyzes:

  • Gross motor functioning (rolling over, sitting, walking)
  • Fine motor skills (using the hands)
  • Communication skills
  • Cognitive development
  • Social-emotional growth.

The evaluator may use a variety of toys, objects, and observations to see if the baby or toddler is where he's expected to be. After the assessment, you'll receive a written report of the findings. There will also be a meeting to discuss the results as well as a treatment plan that spells out which, if any, services will be provided. This could include anything from fitting a child with a hearing aid to parent education classes or occupational therapy.

How do I handle my child's disability?

Parents who discover that their child has a disability often go through a cycle of grief similar to that experienced by someone who's lost a loved one, including periods of fear, anger, denial, guilt, and deep sadness. There's often a feeling of loss for the expectations you once had for your child, as if your map for their future is no longer useful.

Dealing with the grief and moving forward is vital, because parents have an integral role to play in working with professionals to provide services to their young child. With time and support, love and determination, you can begin to truly celebrate the unique and special child you have.

Jenny Friedman holds a PhD in learning disabilities with a specialty in preschool language and cognitive development. She's also the mother of three.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

Content courtesy of American Baby.

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