Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused
By Nancy R.M. Lunden, LCSW
As the Program Director of the May Center for Early Intervention and Specialty Services in West Springfield – and as the parent of a child who was referred for early intervention services – I was pleased to be asked to write a column about early intervention, a subject near and dear to my heart.
My second daughter Jordan was born at 32 weeks, weighing only 3lbs, 2oz. Under the guidelines of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH), she was a “preemie” and therefore potentially eligible to receive services. When it was finally time to bring her home after four weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit at Baystate Medical Center, a social worker gave my husband and me information about the different supports available to our family, including early intervention services.
Mine may be a familiar story to anyone who lives in Western Massachusetts and has had a premature baby. But for those families with children whose need for support services is not apparent at birth, some additional information about early intervention may be helpful.
Early intervention is a program funded through the Massachusetts DPH that provides supports to children from birth to age 3. A child may be eligible for services if s/he has a developmental delay. This could mean that he or she is not saying many or any words; not sitting, crawling, or walking when expected; have a diagnosed disability such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, or autism; and/or live in an environment that would put him or her at risk for developing delays.
In Western Massachusetts, there are ten early intervention programs designated for specific towns. To find out which programs serve your community, you may call Family Ties, the central directory for early intervention services in Massachusetts, at 800-905-8437.
Referrals for early intervention services can be made by anyone (for example: parents, daycare providers, pediatricians, or social workers). Once a program receives a referral, the first step is to conduct an eligibility evaluation. Each program completes this evaluation differently. The process can take one to two hours, after which the evaluation team explains the results and discusses services that may be needed. Services provided by early intervention programs may include:
• service coordination
• speech and language, physical, and occupational therapies
• play groups
• parent support
All children enrolled in the early intervention system have an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). This is a document written in cooperation with parents. It spells out exactly what the family would like the providers to work on, and how all parties can work together to best serve the child and meet the needs of the family. Typically, an IFSP includes a description of a child’s and family’s strengths and concerns; specific goals and strategies; how often services should be provided; and, if needed, a plan to support a family accessing any ancillary services such as housing, nutrition programs, and day care vouchers.
Early intervention focuses on providing support services in the child’s natural environment. This means that services are delivered at a child’s home, daycare, or at other family members’ homes – wherever the child spends time each day. Sessions are designed to be engaging and fun, and individualized to meet each child’s unique needs.
The Massachusetts DPH is committed to ensuring that all children who receive early intervention services are able to smoothly transition into the next step of their development/education. This could mean a referral to a public school, Head Start, and/or local play groups. Early intervention teams at each program are required to inform parents about their options and offer as much support as needed so a child and his or her family are prepared to “graduate” from early intervention.
In our case, Jordan was found to be ineligible for early intervention based on the results of her evaluation. Today, I am happy to report, she is a typical 16-year-old. But many preemies are eligible and can begin receiving early intervention services at a very young age. As a professional in the field, I can assure parents that addressing developmental delays as early as possible can make a profound difference in their children’s lives.
Nancy R.M. Lunden, LCSW, is Regional Director of the May Center for Early Intervention & Specialty Services in West Springfield, Mass. She can be contacted at 413-734-0300, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.