Babies and toddlers go through many milestones as they get older. Some of these milestones include learning their first words, crawling or walking, and even consuming their first bites of solid food. These new and emerging skills come fast and easy for some children. Others might find themselves hitting these developmental leaps late or not at all.
As a parent, knowing the signs of a developmental delay is crucial to allow your child to get the help and support they need early on, also known as early intervention. It’s something I know all too well after going through the process when I learned my 16-month-old toddler had a speech and language delay. Then when he turned three years old, we learned he has autism. Early intervention has played an essential role in helping him develop the skills he needs to communicate and socialize. I will share the signs to help you know if your child could benefit from early intervention too!
What is Early Intervention?
Early intervention is a service provided to infants and toddlers during the first three years of their life who have or are at risk for developmental delays or disabilities (also called “Early Start”). Early intervention helps by providing support through various therapies to help each child depending on their individual needs. Examples of what early intervention services could include are:
- Speech-language therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Physical therapy
- Assistive technology
- Family counseling
- Audiology services
- Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) Therapy
- And more!
Early intervention is available in every state and territory of the United States. You can often access them by contacting your local regional center or health and human services department for more information.
Who is Eligible for Early Intervention?
If you suspect your child could be at risk or have a developmental delay, you can reach out to your local regional center or health and human services department to request an assessment. This will begin the process of intake to determine eligibility. Most states require that the child show a certain level of delay to be eligible. For example, here in California, where I live, their eligibility criteria are the following:
- The child has a developmental delay of at least 33% in one or more areas of cognitive, communication, social or emotional, adaptive, or physical and motor development, including vision and hearing; or
- The child has an established risk condition of known etiology, with a high probability of resulting in delayed development; or
- The child is considered at high risk of having a substantial developmental disability due to a combination of biomedical risk factors diagnosed by qualified personnel.
Signs of Developmental Delay in Children
In all honesty, knowing whether or not your child has or is at risk for a developmental delay isn’t always straightforward. Yes, some children are born with developmental delays. These children are typically diagnosed at birth with a condition or prematurity. Their parents are referred for early intervention services before ever leaving the hospital.
For others, it may take some time before their parents begin to recognize any delayed development patterns. For us, we noticed my son at the time wasn’t really pointing or engaging in much back and forth play. He also wasn’t saying any words except for “daga” for the doggie. It was just about the only word he would say in addition to babbling often.
But once he began having a lot of emotional bursts and meltdowns, we began to worry something was wrong. His 16-month doctor appointment was approaching when I received the pre-appointment survey came for me to fill out. The question I’ll never forget was, “Is your child speaking at least six words or more?” I answered no. The worry began to set in, and our journey to learning about early intervention was just starting.
Examples of Developmental Delay
Here are some other examples of developmental delays & disabilities in young children:
- Not babbling by the age of 12-15 months old (speech and language delay)
- Not using gestures like pointing or waving hello/bye-bye by the age of 12 months old (speech and language delay, cognitive delay)
- Unable to walk independently by 16 months old (gross motor delay)
- Unable to crawl by ten months old (gross motor delay)
- Hearing loss (developmental disability)
- Cerebral Palsy (developmental disability)
- Difficult interacting with adults and/or children (social and emotional developmental delay)
- Inability to remember things or follow basic tasks by two years old (cognitive delay)
As soon as you suspect your child could have a developmental delay in any category, you should notify your pediatrician. They can evaluate your child and refer you to the appropriate service if further testing is needed. For example, they’ll often refer you to a developmental and behavioral pediatrician. Sometimes, they will be the ones who generate a referral for early intervention, which can help expedite the process (but you do NOT need a referral to get started).
How to Apply for Early Intervention
Applying for early intervention services is pretty simple to get started. First, locate your local community’s early intervention program (found here). Let them know you’d like to have your child evaluated for services due to developmental delay concerns. They will typically ask you what type of delays you’re worried about, so having that information noted and in front of you would be helpful.
If your doctor gave you a referral, you could also use the information from your most recent visit to help explain your reasons for needing an evaluation. From there, they will collect your basic information and then pair you with a service coordinator who will be your new point of contact for early intervention services.
Your service coordinator will then schedule your child’s developmental assessment where they will score your child’s developmental abilities in a variety of categories to see if and how much delayed they are in those categories. Keep in mind if your child has a diagnosed disability, that intake process may not warrant the need for an assessment.
Early Intervention Is a Crucial Resource
For my son, we ended up needing an intake assessment which lasted about 1.5 hours in total. He was asked to do things like stack blocks, play with a simple puzzle, interact with the evaluators, follow simple commands, and do similar things. They then gave me a score to show me approximately what age his development is equivalent to. For example, we had this assessment done when he was 16 months old, and his speech and language were comparable to an 8-month-old.
Early intervention and talking about our children possibly having developmental delays can feel like a scary thing. I remember how scared and worried I felt learning my son was delayed in his speech and some fine motor areas. It’s up to us to be their voice and advocate for the help and support that they need. I firmly believe early intervention is an essential resource for children with developmental delays. It can help them develop the crucial skills that will help them catch up with their development (as it has for my son).