Your child just completed a regular checkup with his or her pediatrician who notices a developmental delay. What does that mean? And what are you supposed to do to help your child catch up?
Rebecca Landa knows these answers. Landa is a speech pathologist who has studied infant development for more than 20 years and is currently director of Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Center for Autism and Related Disorders. What Landa has learned in her career is that early intervention services are critical when a developmental delay is noticed and that these services support families as well as help children reach their full potential.
First, when is a delay a cause for concern? Typically when a child has a 25 percent delay in two or more skill areas, such as difficulty with fine and gross motor skills, communication, self-help or adaptive, social, environmental and cognitive skills, he or she will be evaluated, Landa says.
Skills like taking the first step, smiling for the first time, and waving goodbye are considered developmental milestones that can be evaluated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A team comprised of an occupational therapist, physical therapist, special education teacher and speech pathologists like Landa will evaluate the child and his or her needs. This usually occurs through the local school system. The goal then is “to identify very simple but very powerful things that parents can do in their interactions with their babies to accelerate their baby’s language, play and social development,” she says.
An individualized plan is created for the child to create experiences for the child “in everyday life that are going to be at just the right level, not too easy and not too hard, for their child to learn whatever it is they have learning needs in,” Landa says.
For children up to age 3, intervention is provided either in the home or the childcare setting, Landa says, adding that each state has an agency that serves infants and toddlers with special needs and will be able to help with intervention services.
The brain’s capacity to change in response to environmental stimuli and learning is what’s known as experience-dependent neuroplasticity, Landa says. And, when that is affected or delayed, children need specialized attention.
“During early life, the brain is basically connecting itself,” Landa says. “And, sometimes the way that it is connecting itself isn’t as robust as it would happen under normal circumstances.”
So, the earlier intervention starts, the higher the gains. Most children who have a language delay are diagnosed with this delay until they are 2, she says.
“So we’ve lost two years of doing things to support brain development during perhaps the most important time in brain development,” Landa says. “I think my biggest message is that if parents have any concerns about their child’s development, it doesn’t hurt anything for them to have their child tested. These assessments are play-based, so there’s nothing invasive about them. It’s free, and it doesn’t take a lot of the parent’s time. I always say if you’re not sure, act and see. Don’t wait and see.”