Accelify Blog

Disabilities Surge; So Will the Skills

March 15, 2010

The number of young children identified as having developmental delays has risen in Oregon, led mainly by a huge one-year surge in Multnomah County, the state reported Wednesday.

But that’s cause for celebration amon g special education leaders, who say many toddlers and preschoolers in need of help were missed in the past. Reaching those children and their families earlier with specialized help will pay off with big gains in their communication, social and motor skills, educators say.

The earlier identification is also a source of relief for Rachel Costea and other parents. She is amazed at the strides her 3-year-old son, Luca, has made since he began getting early intervention services for speech and other developmental delays. He’s talking more, pointing more, interacting more with others.

"The earlier the better," Costea says of getting help for children with special needs. "That’s the golden rule."

For years that rule wasn’t being followed closely in Oregon. Nationally, 2.7 percent of children younger than age 3 get special education services, but in Oregon, only 1.7 percent were identified and helped, says Nancy Johnson-Dorn, director of early childhood special education in Oregon.

Multnomah County was one of the main problem areas. Only 1.5 percent of its youngest children got early intervention last year.

Cue a doctor-driven turnaround, led by the Oregon Pediatric Society and its partners, that has trained 250 pediatricians and family practice doctors in a state that is home to only about 400 pediatricians.

Doctors or nurse practitioners see about 95 percent of children by age 3, when they are sick or need immunizations, says Dr. David Willis, medical director of the Portland-based Artz Center for Developmental Health in Portland and president of the state pediatrician’s group.

Preschools and day care centers don’t have nearly that kind o f reach.

So the pediatricians group felt an imperative to train the doctors and nurses who treat infants and toddlers in two key areas: how to screen for developmental delay, and what programs and services they should refer families to should a possible delay be detected.

Getting upstream

"We have a public health epidemic of children arriving at kindergarten unprepared," Willis said. "It’s essential to get upstream as early as possible to identify those kids who are off-track and build readiness."

Each year, the Oregon Department of Education reports its count of students with varying disabilities who receive special education services.

Wednesday’s figures show that no group grew faster in the past year than children through age 4 getting services under the broad category "developmental delay." That group increased by 260 youngsters, or 6 percent, from last school year.

Nearly all that growth occurred in Multnomah County, where the number of children younger than age 3 receiving services increased by 35 percent.

"We’re ecstatic," said Nancy Anderson, director of special education services at the Multnomah Education Service District.

The only downside, says Johnson-Dorn, is that early intervention and early special education programs were already stretched thin –and they now lack the resources to give all the additional children as much help as they need.

Help by the hour

Children ages 2 and younger receive, on average, about 31/2 hours of help from teacher s and therapists a month, compared with about seven hours in 2004. Three- and 4-year-olds now get 19 hours of service a month, a decline from the previous average of 24 hours a month.

An effort is under way, launched at the request of state budget co-chairman Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, to update the way Oregon funds early special education services and to spend more money on it. The federal government mandates that Oregon serve children with disabilities from birth to age 5, but it pays only about 20 percent of the $70 million annual cost.

In the meantime, children are getting quality help from early intervention and early childhood special education programs within those budgetary restraints, Willis says.

Children younger than 3 primarily are served in their homes or day cares. A special education teacher, speech pathologist or other therapist concentrates on training the parents or day care teacher, modeling for them how to build the child’s language skills, motor skills and social skills.

Three- and 4-year-olds with disabilities are mainly served in preschool settings alongside other kids their age.

Assistance in action

On Wednesday at the Multnomah ESD’s Thompson Center, where it operates seven preschool classes for students with and without developmental delays, small children swarmed the playground, drew pictures, heard stories, ate snacks and practiced classroom routines.

In Luca’s class, teachers do the same thing they’ve taught his mom to do at home: They put things he loves out of reach or even out of sight, forcing the once-not-very-verbal 3-year-old to ask for them.

"Bubbles," he requests of speech pathologist Nancy Turner, who retrieves a jar of bubble soap she had set at the end of his table. "Blow," he says, then reacts with delight as she does, sending tiny bubbles flying all around him.