Today, it’s easier than ever to diagnose developmental disorders. Some, like Down syndrome, can even be spotted during pregnancy. Others (like autism or language disorders) that used to be commonly diagnosed during the preschool years, can now be flagged in infancy.
Being able to evaluate for developmental disorders earlier means earlier intervention, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that early intervention is the key to maximizing a child’s potential.
“The older a child gets and the more time that passes without intervention, developmental gaps become larger and more difficult to close,” says pediatric speech-language pathologist Mandy Alvarez. “The first 3 years is a critical time that can change the course of a child’s life.”
Why is the first three years such a critical time?
From birth to age 3, a child’s brain grows to 85% of its adult size. During this three-year window, the brain is more sensitive to environmental input than it ever will be again. The interactions a little one has with the people and world around her literally wire her brain, which is why interventions for developmental disorders that start before age 3 are so powerful. Intervention at any age is important, but after age 3 it becomes harder to make such rapid, long-lasting changes.
What is early intervention?
Early intervention is providing services to a child with developmental delays before age 3. These services are provided by various professionals, including but not limited to:
- Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP)
- Occupational Therapist (OT)
- Physical Therapist (PT)
- Pediatric Developmental Psychologist
- Pediatric Neurologist
- Medical Doctor
Oftentimes an early-intervention plan will include a team of professionals. For a child with Down syndrome, for example, an SLP will address speech and language, an OT will help with learning to carry out daily activities, a PT will work on motor skills, and a medical doctor will treat heart and respiratory issues. The most important thing to remember here is the word “team.” All areas of development overlap in certain ways, so your child’s progress is maximized when the professionals who are working with her communicate with each other about concerns, goals, and progress.
How does a parent seek early intervention services?
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends standardized general development screenings at ages 9, 18, and 24 or 30 months, and standardized autism screenings at 18 and 24 months. Ask your pediatrician about these screenings.
If your pediatrician does not refer you for a developmental evaluation and you still feel concerned, seek help on your own. In the U.S., each state has a government-funded early intervention program. Here you can find a list of early intervention programs by state.
You can also seek services on your own by contacting a qualified pediatric specialist such as an SLP, developmental psychologist, or neurologist.
Can parents wait and see if children catch up on their own?
If your child is lagging behind on milestones, you may receive well-meaning advice to “wait and see,” or that she will “grow out of it.” While that may be the case for some children, it’s important to act on concerns. If there is an underlying problem, it’s best to catch and address it during the three-year window we mentioned above.
A Note About Support for Parents
If your child is diagnosed with a developmental disorder, you may feel overwhelmed. Ask your early intervention team for a referral to a parent support group. Research shows that support groups are invaluable for helping people facing a common challenge feel supported, positive, hopeful, and knowledgeable about the challenges they face.