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Children with disability: services

A child holding her mother's hand

In a society that is still learning to understand the needs of people with disabilities, it can be difficult for children with disabilities to receive the services they need. 

Children with disabilities are often left behind, as they might not be able to get the services they need to succeed. As a result, they can grow up without proper care. 

In this blog post we look at early intervention, how it works, why you may want to consider it for your child, and the types of support you can turn to.

Early intervention: what is it?

Early intervention is specialised support for children with disabilities and should occur as soon as possible after a child’s needs are identified. It might include therapies, education and other supports.

You’ll also hear the terms early childhood intervention and early childhood early intervention. These refer to intervention for children and their families in the early years from birth until children start school.

How does early intervention work?

As your child’s specific needs are identified, or your child’s condition is diagnosed, interventions can be targeted to address your child’s and family’s particular needs.

Early intervention often focuses on four critical areas of children’s development:

  • Physical development – that is, children’s bodies and brains
  • Cognitive development – that is, children’s thinking and learning
  • Behavioural development – that is, children’s behaviour and how it’s affected by physical and mental development
  • Social and emotional development – that is, children’s ability to form relationships and cope with emotions.

Different therapies used as part of early intervention address these developmental areas in different ways. For example:

  • Occupational therapy can help with fine motor skills, play and self-help skills like dressing and toileting.
  • Physiotherapy can help with motor skills like balance, sitting, crawling and walking.
  • Speech therapy can help with speech, language, eating, and drinking skills like chewing, sucking and swallowing.
  • Psychological treatment can help with forming relationships, coping with emotions and learning behaviours and skills.

Children often benefit from a combination of treatments – this is called a multidisciplinary approach. And children often need different treatments or therapy combinations at various stages of their development.

Some families look into alternative therapies like art therapy or non-traditional treatments like acupuncture or homeopathy. If you’re interested in alternative interventions, some careful research can help you determine whether the treatment is backed by scientific evidence and worth your time and money.

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Getting started on early intervention for your child with a disability

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is an excellent place to start with early intervention.

If your child is aged 0-6 years and you’re worried about their development, you don’t need a diagnosis to get early childhood early intervention support from the NDIS.

You’ll meet with an NDIS early childhood partner to talk about your concerns, your child’s needs and goals, and the support the NDIS can offer.

If your child is seven years or older, they will need a diagnosis to access NDIS support.

Getting a diagnosis to guide early intervention for children with a disability

A diagnosis will help you choose the proper early intervention for your child with a disability or other additional needs.

If your child’s disability or developmental delay showed up at birth or soon after, you might already be well along this path. But if you don’t have a diagnosis and you’re concerned about your child, you can ask your GP for a referral to a paediatrician.

The paediatrician might do a formal assessment of your child. The review should give you an understanding of your child’s current skills, as well as delays in your child’s skills and development.

The assessment should include a treatment plan designed to work on your child’s skills and development delays. For example, the paediatrician might say your child needs a particular type of early intervention and give you a referral for early intervention services.

If you don’t have a diagnosis or experts have trouble reaching a diagnosis, that’s OK. For example, the paediatrician might be able to say that your child is slow in reaching developmental milestones, like speech or mobility, because of a developmental delay. 

You and the paediatrician can use this information to determine which early interventions will best target your child’s delays.

Disability services for children: understanding the terminology

Disability services terminology can be confusing, but over time you’ll become more familiar with it. 

Here’s a quick guide to some of the terms you’ll come across most often if you have a child with a disability or other additional needs.

Therapies or interventions

These are the programs or sessions aimed at promoting your child’s development. Your child can get early intervention therapies in many ways and in different environments. For example, your child might be able to get treatments at home, child care or kindergarten, in a specialist setting, or even online or by teleconference.

Services or service providers

Services or service providers are the people and organisations that offer therapies. They might provide one treatment or several types, as well as other services and support for your child and family, like respite services, social and recreational programs or peer support programs.

Services might be specialist disability or early intervention services. This includes services that provide specialised support for people with specific disabilities like autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing impairment and vision impairment.

Services might also be mainstream services that all families can use, like child and family health services, kindergartens, community health centres, regional parenting services, child care services, playgroups and occasional care.

Services fall into the following categories:

  • Local, state and Australian government services and programs, which are usually provided free of charge
  • Not-for-profit services and programs, which are funded mainly by the government and are free, low cost or partly subsidised
  • Private services and programs you have to pay for in full unless your child is eligible for financial support.

Disability professionals

People working in the disability sector are generally professionals with qualifications and experience in social work, case management, disability support, community development, psychology, education, speech pathology, audiology, orthoptics, physiotherapy or occupational therapy. They should also be experts in child development.

What disability services and service providers do

Different disability service providers use different approaches, but almost all disability services and programs fall into one or more of the following categories.

Children with a disability, developmental delay, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or other additional needs often benefit from a multidisciplinary team of professionals working together. This means you might find you’re using services and programs from more than one of these categories.

Behavioural

These providers focus on teaching your child new behaviour and skills by using specialised, structured techniques. In this group, you might come across counsellors, psychologists, occupational therapists and developmental educators. In addition, a team of therapists might work with your child.

Developmental

These providers tailor their teaching to your child’s developmental stage. For example, they can help your child learn to form positive, meaningful relationships with other people, focusing on teaching social and communication skills. Psychologists and developmental educators are examples of service providers who may work with your child.

Educational

These providers focus on skills development and learning in a playroom, classroom or similar teaching environment. Examples are early childhood educators, special education teachers, education support staff and educational psychologists.

Family-centred

These providers include family counsellors and organisations that concentrate on the family unit. They also have developmental educators or other early childhood specialists, who can work with you, your child and your family.

Medical

These providers focus on treating the critical medical aspects of your child’s disability and managing any medication they use. Examples are your GP and paediatrician or medical specialists like cardiologists, neurologists or orthopaedic surgeons.

Respite services

Respite services give you a break from caring for your child with a disability. Respite can include your child’s time with support workers or in social or recreational programs or activities. It can be for a few hours or more extended periods. Your child can be cared for in your home or elsewhere.

Therapy-based

These providers offer specific therapies that target your child’s individual needs. For example, if your child has difficulty with speech or communication, you might see a speech therapist. Other professionals you might come across include physiotherapists, occupational therapists and developmental educators.

You might also come across:

  • Alternative therapies and non-traditional treatments like acupuncture, homeopathy, or massage therapy
  • Other interventions that sit outside the categories listed above, such as music therapy and art therapy.

And you might find that some services and service providers take a combined approach. An example of this is professionals like speech therapists and psychologists working together and using behavioural and developmental processes.

Finding disability services

The NDIS is an excellent place to start. You can phone the NDIS on 1800 800 110.

If your child is aged 0-6 years, you don’t need a diagnosis to get support through the NDIS’s early childhood early intervention approach. You’ll work with an early childhood partner who can:

  • Provide you with information
  • Connect you with mainstream services like community health services, playgroups or peer support groups
  • Provide some early intervention, like speech therapy or occupational therapy.

If your child needs longer-term support, the early childhood partner can help you request NDIS access. If your child is eligible to join the NDIS, your NDIS early childhood partner will work with you to develop an NDIS plan for your child.

If your child is seven years or older and is eligible for the NDIS, you’ll meet with a planner or local area coordinator to develop an NDIS plan for your child. 

The plan will include NDIS-funded support like therapies, technologies or equipment to help your child with daily living activities or modifications to your home.

Other good places to find out about services are:

  • Your GP or another health professional
  • Your local council
  • Centrelink
  • Early intervention service providers
  • State government disability services and websites
  • Disability specific organisations and websites
  • MyTime groups – organised groups for parents, grandparents and carers of children and teenagers with disability and chronic illness
  • Other parents.

Service providers for children with disability and ASD

Children with a disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delay or other additional needs need various support for their development. Support can include things like early intervention, community health services, playgroups and much more.

The people who provide this support are called disability service providers. If you have a child with a disability, ASD or other additional needs, you need to choose the right disability service providers for your child. You might work with one or many service providers.

The best service providers for your child will be the ones who meet your child’s specific needs.

Choosing disability service providers for children

When you’re choosing service providers, it’s good to meet providers face to face. You can often get more information this way, plus a better sense of whether service professionals are listening to you and trying to understand your needs and goals. It’s OK to visit services more than once before choosing or to ask to meet with several different professionals within the service.

You can work out which disability service providers meet your child’s needs by thinking and asking about:

  • Service provision
  • Accessibility
  • Service standards and staff qualifications.

Service provision

These are questions about how service providers can help you, what you can get from the providers, and when to expect the help to support your child needs. Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How will you work with me to support my child’s development?
  • How much flexibility is there? In other words, how much choice will I have about what to use within the service?
  • Where will the service be provided – for example, via video conference, in my home, in a hospital, clinic, community centre, early learning centre, or school? And can I choose?
  • What support can you give my child when they move to kindergarten, child care or school? For example, will you come to kindergarten, child care or school meetings if I want you to?
  • How will you support the mainstream or community activities that my child might be involved with – for example, playgroups or sports clubs?
  • What can I do if I’m unhappy with the support you’re providing for my child?

Accessibility

These are questions about the practical side of using service providers and whether services suit your child and family. Here are some questions for you to think about:

  • Can you and your child get to the service quickly? For example, can you get there by public transport, or is there a car park nearby?
  • When, how often and for how long will your child need the service?
  • How long is each session likely to take?
  • What are the service’s operating hours?
  • Is there a cost involved?
  • Is there a waiting list? How long will it take to get an appointment?

Service standards and staff qualifications

These are questions about the quality of service providers. Here are some questions you can ask:

Deciding on disability service providers for your child

Once you’ve visited or spoken to the disability service providers you’re considering, you could draw up a list of pros and cons to help you decide which service providers might suit your child best.

If you’re still not sure after comparing the pros and cons, it’s OK to:

  • Go back to service providers and ask more questions
  • Ask other professionals what they think might be best for your child
  • Ask other parents about their experiences.

Sometimes you might decide on a service provider and get started, but then you realise that the service provider isn’t right for you after all. That’s OK – you can change providers.

A close-up of a child with flour and gingerbread men-shaped cookie-cutters
A close-up of a child with flour and gingerbread men-shaped cookie-cutters

Choosing early interventions: start with the evidence

When you’re selecting early interventions for children with disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), developmental delay and other additional needs, it’s best to start by looking at the evidence.

That’s because early interventions that are based on scientifically tested and reliable evidence are the ones most likely to:

  • Help your child
  • Be safe for your child
  • Be worth your time, money and energy.

But as a parent, how can you figure out whether an intervention is scientifically tested and evidence-based? You can:

  • Question the claims about the intervention
  • Examine the evidence behind these claims.

Questioning the claims about early interventions

Often it isn’t clear what people are saying an early intervention can do for your child or what the result of the intervention is supposed to be. 

For example, an intervention might claim it will help your child to ‘behave better’, be more social’, or even claim to ‘cure’ your child. But what does this mean?

To get more precise information about the claims being made for the intervention, you can ask questions like these:

  • How will I know whether the intervention has worked?
  • What does ‘better’, ‘improvement’ or ‘cure’ really mean? That is, what changes in my child should I expect to see?
  • How will the changes be measured?
  • Could the changes be measured by anyone (objectively)?
  • Is there a risk of bias – that is, of seeing what I want to see?

Questioning the evidence behind early interventions

When you feel you understand what people are claiming about an intervention, the next step is to ask what evidence the intervention does what it says – and how good that evidence is.

You won’t always find clear and conclusive evidence – for example; the research might say the intervention helps only some children or some problems. But it’s still best to get as much information as you can.

Here are some questions that can help you find out about whether there’s good evidence for the intervention:

  • Has the intervention been tested?
  • Has it been tried with other children like my child?
  • Was the test reliable or fair?
  • Did the test use research methods that couldn’t be influenced by the person running the tests?
  • During the test, could other factors like parent or therapist expectations have influenced the results? What about the placebo effect?
  • Was a control group, which didn’t get the treatment used in the test? Did participants have an equal chance of being in the control group or therapy group?
  • Have other people tested this intervention and come up with the same results?

You might also like to find out more about the science behind the intervention:

  • What theory of knowledge underlies the intervention? For example, is it based on neurobiology, behavioural psychology, cognitive psychology and so on?
  • Were the results published in a scientific journal? Or by an organisation or association with a good reputation, like a university or hospital?
  • Were the results published more than once or as part of a more extensive study, like a systematic review?
  • Can I get copies of what has been published?

These questions about evidence and its science are based on what we know about how interventions are tested.

Deciding on early intervention: what’s the right fit for your child and family?

There are some practical and personal questions you’ll also need to consider before committing your child and family to an intervention. The following questions might help you decide whether an intervention is a real option for your family.

  • Cost: is the intervention affordable? If not, are there subsidies, rebates or funding that can help you afford it?
  • Time and involvement: some interventions take a lot of time and need you to do as a parent. Can your family commit to this? What would you need to do to make it work?
  • Availability: is this intervention available in your area? If it isn’t, is there a way you can use it – for example, online? Are there places public in the program?
  • Child fit: does the intervention meet the current needs of your child?
  • Family fit: will the intervention help you meet your family’s goals and needs? Does the intervention fit with your family’s beliefs and values? Or can adjustments be made to accommodate these?

Warning signs about early interventions

There are some warning signs that an intervention isn’t all it claims to be.  For example, beware of claims that an intervention will cure or fix your child or make your child ‘normal’.

Beware of jargon too. Lots of scientific-sounding language doesn’t necessarily mean that the approach is scientific.

Is the cost high? Watch out for interventions that might be trying to sell you something or whose prices seem out of proportion to what’s being offered. Talk to people you trust to find out more.

Some interventions might seem harmless. But if they’re not suitable for your child, they can waste time and energy that you could be spending on interventions that might get better results.

Lots of personal testimonials or stories about how good an intervention is can also be a warning sign, especially if they’re the only evidence supporting the intervention. 

Testimonials don’t replace quality research. There might be many reasons why an intervention seems to have worked for families who give testimonials – for example; a family might have been doing something else that helped.

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