Making sense of early intervention: A guide for Tampa Bay area families

Parents concerned about their little one's development likely have a lot of questions to sort through. How do you go about securing speech therapy for a toddler? Where can you find service providers, and what happens if your insurance won't cover it?

It's only a matter of time before most families hear about early intervention (or "EI"). This refers to services specifically designed for young children with developmental delays.

EI delivers much-needed assistance to kiddos who aren't yet old enough for regular school. What's more is that the most recent research has linked EI with notable improvements in communication, social skills and IQ.

Navigating the early intervention framework, however, can be an overwhelming (and sometimes confusing) task. We're here to help Tampa Bay Area families make sense of the process.

Here's a primer for what you need to know about snagging EI services for your child.

Getting your child evaluated

One misconception a lot of parents have is that they need a formal diagnosis or a doctor's referral to seek services. Not so, according to Dr. Emily Luis Cimino, NCSP, coordinator of the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System (FDLRS). The program facilitates EI services for children ages 3 to 5.

"We don't require any documentation; just a phone call from the child's legal guardian for permission to do a screening," says Cimino. "We want any parent who has concerns to come." 

So where do you start? That all depends on the age of your child. Little ones from birth to 3 years old are served by the Early Steps program, which is available statewide. USF Health is the Early Steps home base for Hillsborough County, while All Children's Hospital is affiliated with Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

According to Cimino, the bulk of kiddos who go through Early Steps are identified between the ages of 18 and 24 months. In most cases, parents have been cued to the program by their pediatrician. This usually happens if the doctor has a developmental concern. Cimino says that speech and communication issues are usually what prompt the process.

Again, parents don't need a green light from their pediatrician or insurance company to seek services. If they have concerns of their own, they can go directly to Early Steps to coordinate an evaluation -- which is completely free of charge.

If your child is between the ages of 3 and 5, early intervention services then fall to your local educational agency. In Florida, this is covered by FDLRS. (If you hear people talking about "fiddlers," this is it.) The term "Child Find" refers to the division of FDLRS that handles early intervention services.

Child Find serves two pots of kids: those who've aged out of Early Steps and those seeking first-time services after age 3. Cimino says these two groups translate to about 1,400 students who get evaluated each year. To get the ball rolling, FDLRS in Hillsborough partners with a community-based agency called the Early Childhood Council (ECC). Together, they hold a monthly group screening where 100 kids are screened in a wide variety of developmental areas. This includes vision, speech and language, behavior and more. Some kids pass in all areas, while about 40 to 50 percent end up with referrals for formal evaluations. 
Cimino says the FDLRS process is similar in neighboring counties, although Hillsborough (because of its larger population) is the only one that partners with the ECC to carry out these screenings.

One local family's experience

Carolina Beltran, a 32-year-old mother of two in Brandon, has been through the early intervention process with both her sons. When Alejandro, now 7, was showing communication deficits at 2 years old, she contacted Early Steps directly for an individual evaluation. This opened the door for speech and language services. 

Since he wasn't yet in school, a speech pathologist regularly visited Beltran's home to carry out his free sessions. When he transitioned to daycare shortly after, a therapist delivered services at that site. After aging out of Early Steps, he swiftly transitioned into the Child Find program before heading into kindergarten, at which point the school system took over.

"Once you start the process, you don't have to worry," says Beltran. "It goes from Early Steps to Child Find to the school system; no gaps."

When her little one, 4-year-old Andres, was displaying particularly defiant behavior at 18 months old, Beltran attended one of the ECC's group screenings. After an evaluation, an early interventionist came to their home to help them cope with the behavior. 

"His behavior is so much better!" Beltran says. "I feel more than confident that he'll be ready for kindergarten next year."

She was so pleased with her experience that she has since become a parent liaison for the school district and FDLRS.

Benefits of early intervention

EI services may also be sought out and paid for privately. Behavioral Consulting of Tampa Bay (BCTOB), which has three locations throughout the area, works heavily with kids with autism.

"We're more geared toward decreasing problem behavior and increasing acquisition of school-readiness skills, language skills, communication skills and some pre-academic skills for some of our younger clients," says lead behavior Analyst Didiana De La Osa, M.S., BCBA. "We also teach functional life skills and self-help skills to our clients, like hand-washing, getting dressed and independent toileting."

De La Osa says most insurance companies will cover the therapy if the child has an autism diagnosis, but some parents do pay out-of-pocket. 

In her experience, this type of targeted instruction can be a game changer for families. She says she has seen kids go from being the classroom "problem child" to a student who thrives at school.

"I've seen them pick up skills that aren't only going to help them succeed in school, but also improve their relationships with peers," De La Osa adds. "They're not going to be the child that's left out because their peers don't want to play with them. I really believe in what we do because it's ultimately improving their quality of life."

When it comes to early intervention, Cimino echoes the same idea. 

"Parents should know that more than half the kids that go into the FDLRS program don't require any special education services when they get into kindergarten," she says. "Research has shown us that the more effort we put in at the beginning, the more positive impact it's going to have later on in life."
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.