I've mentioned the importance of children accessing early intervention programs in several of my previous articles, but what is early intervention, who is eligible and how does it help children with developmental delays/disabilities?

It is a federal law that all states have to have early intervention programs. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), created in 1986, is the law ensuring these services are available to children with delays and/or disabilities. The act governs how states/public agencies provide early intervention, special education and related services to the more than 6.5 million eligible infants, toddlers and children who are considered disabled. This article focuses on Part C of the law, a $436 million program administered by the states that covers the provision of early intervention services.1

Early intervention is a system designed to help babies and toddlers with developmental delays/disabilities. Services focus on helping eligible babies and toddlers learn basic and new skills that typically develop from birth through 2 years of age. These skills include:

physical – reaching, rolling, crawling, walking
cognitive – thinking, learning, problem solving
communication – talking, listening, understanding
social/emotional – playing, interacting with others
self-help – eating, dressing

Examples of services available to address each child's individual needs are:

assistive technology
audiology/hearing
speech/language
family counseling/training
medical/nursing
nutrition
occupational and/or physical therapies

Providers can also help family members better understand the needs of their child and how they can help enhance his/her development.

Eligibility is established through evaluations that determine if the child does have delays or a disability. Once eligibility is established children can receive early intervention services from birth up until their third birthday.2 It is vital that services are provided to children as soon as they are deemed eligible.

The three primary reasons for intervening as early as possible are:

  • to enhance the child's development. Child development research has established the rate of learning and development is most rapid in the preschool years. If this stage is not taken advantage of and fully utilized, a child could have difficulty with learning skills at a later time.
  • to provide support/assistance to the family. Services have significant positive impact on parents and siblings. It can improve their attitudes about themselves and their child, provide information and skills for teaching their child and give them more time to relax and enjoy their family.
  • to maximize he child's benefit to society. Increased developmental and educational gains can decrease dependence on social institutions, help families cope better and provide more employment opportunities as the child ages. All help to provide economic as well as social benefits. Early intervention has shown to result in children needing fewer special education and other habilitative services later in life, being retained in grade less often and in some cases being indistinguishable from non-disabled students years after the receipt of services.3

So far I've provided an overview of early intervention, who is eligible and the benefits it provides to children and their families. Next month I am going to continue with the subject of early intervention and address what to do if you are concerned with your baby's development, the evaluation process for receipt of services and who pays for these services.