Early Intervention Benefits Children with Special Needs

Maria Alvarez
November 21, 2011

“I remember when my son, Ta’Shawn, was two, he jumped away every time my very affectionate relatives hugged him,” says Hope Tucker, a single mom in Richmond. Ta’Shawn did not like to play with other children, and he preferred to play with rocks rather than toys.

Ta’Shawn was diagnosed at age three with a form of autism—and getting the diagnosis “was very important,” says Tucker. “Knowing there was something different about my son enabled me to help him, to find resources.”

Early Intervention is Key

“Early intervention [for children with special needs] can make a big difference,” says Stephanie Stein, Director of Parents Services at Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center. “The earlier the problem is discovered, the faster the intervention can bring meaningful positive changes to the child and the family.”

After Carolina was diagnosed with special needs, she immediately started receiving therapy at home, says her father, Rubén Ramírez in Woodland, CA. Her family also received counseling to help them adjust to the diagnosis. Carolina has made significant progress—and now their family has started helping others, he adds.

“If intervention starts early in the lives [of autistic children], you can really redirect their brain,” adds Areva Martin, founder of Special Needs Network in South Los Angeles. Her third child was diagnosed with autism at age two.

Early diagnosis can also make it easier for the family to provide support, says Andrea Ando, a long-time Early Special Education Teacher with the Sacramento County Office of Education. “A problem may get worse if it is not addressed. If a baby has a delay in one area of development, it may affect other areas,” she adds.

Observe How Your Child Develops

Parents can compare how their child is developing with “developmental milestones,” says Ando. Milestones are lists of what young children typically do at certain ages—how they play, learn, speak, behave, and move—as well as potential signs for concern (see box).

Using milestones as a kind of checklist can help parents pinpoint concerns that might be related to special needs. But do not be alarmed if a child does not do everything listed on the chart. Some children learn to walk or talk later than others, and differences may also be related to temperament or health needs.

When parents feel something is not quite right about their child’s development, it can be challenging to reach out about whether the child might have special needs. Parents may feel denial, guilt, and even shame. “Be strong,” advises Nancy Borquez, a Corona mother of a 14- year-old with autism. “Get over [your fears and] keep looking for help. You can do it, as I did.”

Have Your Child Assessed for Special Needs

Parents should talk with their child’s doctor about any concerns related to their child’s development, and include as many details as possible, says Ando. Parents can request visual, hearing, and autism screenings— and also a translator, if needed.

The doctor can provide a referral to a specialist for a more in-depth evaluation of the child. If the doctor dismisses the family’s concerns, parents should continue advocating for a referral. They can also contact resources) about getting an assessment.

“Do not take just one opinion,” advises Tucker. “I took my son to three different doctors until I found an answer to [problems] I had noticed.” During this time, her son was asked to leave two preschool programs. But a teacher also referred the family to Children’s Hospital for a special needs assessment. Ta’Shawn was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a disability within the spectrum of autism disorders.

The Ramírez family was concerned when Carolina was not crawling at eight months, and then did not make eye contact at 16 months. “We tried to get an answer from our daughter’s pediatrician,” recalls Rubén Ramírez, “and she kept saying everything was normal.” Cultural barriers and respect for the pediatrician made the parents reluctant to challenge the doctor, “even though the concerns stayed in our hearts,” he adds. Then they had Carolina assessed at a Department of Developmental Services Regional Center (see resources), where she was diagnosed with special needs.

“Doctors do not know your child better than you do,” adds Ayde Syed, a Sacramento mom to a 21-year-old daughter with cerebral paralysis and a 8-year-old daughter with borderline autism. “The first years are crucial to help [children] move forward and develop,” she adds.

Find Support

Many organizations in California provide support for families of children with special needs (see resources). First Five, Head Start, Early Start, and WIC agencies also provide support and guidance. Children have the right to receive needed attention, including children who are uninsured or undocumented.

But disparities “exist despite all the mandated efforts that are in place,” says Ando. “We hear that families are not aware of our services or don’t know what to look for.” After a child is diagnosed, special needs services can be hard to find, especially for families that speak languages other than English or are low-income.

When Martin’s son was diagnosed with autism, she says, “I noticed the lack of information and resources, access to quality therapists, and a huge shortage of professionals serving these communities. I had to spend a lot of time piecing [services together].” So Martin started Special Needs Network, which provides support for underserved families and children with autism.

Martin advises parents to keep good records of children’s therapies, medical records, and school meetings. Another key skill is collaborating with other parents, therapists, organizations— and learning to temper emotional reactions, she says.

“Find and reach out to grassroots groups that know how to get help,” advises Ramirez. “Reach out to other parents with special needs children. It is easier to talk to someone who already went through what you are experiencing.”

Thanks in part to the early support Tucker’s son received, the 14-yearold is now a straight-A student who loves arts and sings in the church choir. “He has done all the things the doctors said he was not going to be able to do,” adds Tucker.

Learn the Signs

CDC recommends parents talk with their child’s doctor if a child shows the following signs for concern, or seems to lose skills.

  • 2 months: does not respond to loud sounds, watch moving objects, smile at people, bring hands to mouth, or hold head up when pushing up from tummy.

  • 6 months: does not try to get things, show affection, respond to sounds, roll over, laugh, or the child’s muscles seem very stiff or floppy.

  • 1 year: does not crawl, stand when supported, search for things you hide, say single words, learn gestures, or point to things.

  • 2 years: does not use two-word phrases, know what to do with common objects, copy actions and words, follow simple instructions, or walk steadily.

  • 3 years: does not climb stairs well, speak somewhat clearly, play with simple toys, speak in sentences, play make-believe, make eye contact, or want to play with children or toys.

For more information, see www.cdc.gov/actearly (English); www.cdc.gov/pronto (Spanish)


  • Department of Developmental Services Regional Centers offer advice and free services for families of children with special needs. 800-515-BABY (2229), www.dds.ca.gov/RC/RCList.cfm

  • Family Resource Centers Network of California is a statewide network staffed by families of children with special needs. 916-962-0823, www.frcnca.org/frcnca-directory

  • Special Needs Network provides support and advocacy information for parents of children with autism. 213-389-7100, www.specialneedsnetwork.net

  • Fiesta Educativa offers support and services for families of children with special needs, including advocacy. 323-221-6696, www.fiestaeducativa.org

  • Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center provides services for children with special needs. 415-884-3535, www.matrixparents.org

This article originally appeared in Children's Advocate.  It is reprinted here with permission.