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Early Intervention: Services for Young Kids with Disabilities

If you’re a new parent, you already know the joy of watching your child grow. Your baby might be saying their first words, starting to crawl, or learning to play with simple toys. 

Watching your child develop can be a source of excitement and happiness, but it can also create questions. How do you know if your child is meeting early developmental milestones? How can you help them if they’re not? 

That’s where early intervention comes in. Early intervention programs provide services for families of infants and toddlers who either:

  1. Have developmental delays
  2. Are at-risk for significant developmental delays

In Illinois, early intervention starts with Child and Family Connections: regional intake agencies throughout the state that help families enter the early invention system. But what are early intervention programs? Why do they matter? And how can you get free early child intervention services for your kid? Keep reading to find out.

What is Early Intervention? 

Early intervention is a statewide program for families with children from birth through age three. An early childhood intervention program can assist kids who need extra help to meet developmental milestones

If your child is eligible for early intervention services, you’ll have access to a wide range of supports. Early intervention uses a team approach, and you’re the central team member. That means you’ll work with a service coordinator to build a support system that works for you: your lifestyle, your culture, your native language, your daily routines. 

There are three key pieces to the early intervention system:

  1. Referral
  2. Services
  3. Transition

Let’s explore each of those stages in more detail.

Referral

The referral process is how your child enters the early intervention system. If you’re concerned about your baby’s development, you or someone else can contact any CFC office in person or by phone, fax, or mail. The CFC team will provide a free screening of your child’s progress in five key developmental areas:

  • Physical development (movement)
  • Cognitive development (learning)
  • Communication (interaction)
  • Social or emotional development (behavior)
  • Adaptive development (use of existing skills)

Easterseals serving Chicagoland and Greater Rockford has 2 locations to serve local families. 

Our Evergreen Park office for Child and Family Connections #8 is located at:
9730 S. Western Ave. Suite 101
Evergreen Park, IL 60805. 
Please call 773.233.1799 to speak with our team. 

Our Tinley Park Child and Family Connections #12 office is located at:
17300 Ozark Avenue, North Building
Tinley Park, IL 60477. 
Please call 708.429.8231 to speak with a member of our team.

To find a local CFC, go to this website or call (800) 843-6154 and request a developmental evaluation.

If the service coordinator at the CFC team determines that your child has a qualifying developmental delay, they’ll work with you to provide early intervention services. Under Illinois law, your child is eligible for early intervention programs if they are under 36 months of age and either:

  1. Have a physician’s diagnosis of a physical or mental condition that would lead to developmental delay. The list of eligible conditions includes spina bifida, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, and more. 
  2. Have an identifiable developmental delay of 30% or more in one of the five key developmental areas listed above based on an early intervention evaluation.
  3. Are at risk of substantial developmental delay because of certain risk factors. Those risk factors include homelessness, chronic illness of the primary caregiver, having a primary caregiver who is under 15 years of age, having a primary caregiver with a tenth-grade education or less, and other considerations. 

But how do you know if you should contact the CFC? All children develop differently, and most developmental differences aren’t a sign of any problems. Your child’s pediatrician can help you determine whether your child might be eligible for early intervention services. However, you can also play a role in recognizing early warning signs of a developmental delay. 

This early intervention brochure includes a simple map of developmental milestones, or skills that your child should have at a certain age. Those milestones include:

3 months

6 months

12 months

24 months

Lifting their head while lying on their stomach

Sitting upright with minimal support

Pulling themselves up and stepping with support

Kicking a large ball

Following a person with their eyes

Passing objects from hand to mouth or between hands 

Picking objects up with a thumb and one finger

Asking for objects by name

Smiling when spoken to

Responding to speech with a smile or coo

Saying two or three words like “mama” and dada”

Using two or three words in a series, like “more juice”


If you notice any of these early warning signs, you should talk to your family doctor, Child and Family Connections #8 or #12, or Easterseals serving Chicagoland & Greater Rockford:

Problems with Seeing

Problems with Hearing

Problems with Moving

Doesn’t follow objects with their eyes by 6 months

Doesn’t turn to face a strange noise or voice by 6 months

Doesn’t kick their legs and grab with their hands by 3 months

Can’t locate and pick up objects that they’ve dropped

Regularly rubs or pulls at ears

Arches their back when lying on their back or being held

Often rubs their eyes, complains their eyes hurt, or has red and watering eyes

Talks very quietly or very loudly

Always favors one hand over the other before 2 years

Holds head awkwardly while trying to focus

Doesn’t react when their name is called

Can’t hold their own head up by 3 months

Often crosses one or both eyes

Always turns the same ear towards a sound they’re trying to hear

Can’t roll over by age 8 months

Fails to notice things that other children do

Has frequent earaches 

Can’t sit up without support by 9 months


For more information about monitoring your child’s development, explore Easterseals’ Make the First Five Count resources, including the Ages & Stages Questionnaire.

Early Intervention Services

Once your service coordinator has completed the early intervention assessment and determined that your child is eligible for early intervention services, you’ll work together to create an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). The IFSP is a plan that details the services your family and your child will get and how often you’ll receive them. It also includes information about your child’s development, your family’s resources and concerns, the progress your child should make with the help of early intervention services, and more. 

The services your family receives will look different depending on your child’s needs. They could include any of the following:

  • Speech Therapy
  • Physical Therapy
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Developmental Therapy
  • Health Services
  • Social Work
  • Nursing
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Audiology
  • Vision Services
  • Assistive Technology Devices
  • Transportation
  • Medical Diagnostics
  • Family Training and Support
  • Service Coordination

These services can take one of three forms:

  1. Direct services: a therapist or other care provider interacts directly with your child or family to provide services.
  2. Monitoring: a qualified professional evaluates or re-evaluates your child’s and family’s needs to help provide assistance and make sure your child receives the best and most suitable care.
  3. Consultation: a care provider offers training, evaluation, or assistance to your family.

Your IFSP will also state where and how you’ll receive these services. Early intervention services should take place in a natural environment whenever possible, meaning “settings that are natural or typical for a same-aged infant or toddler without a disability.” This could be at home, in a child care center, or somewhere else in your community. Your child might practice different skills in different natural environments: they might pick up toys at home and greet their friends at a child care center, for example.

You and your child can receive services from a variety of professionals, including social workers, nurses, speech/language pathologists, special educators, pediatricians, and more. 

As a parent, you will also play a key role — even the key role — in your child’s early intervention team. The family’s role in early intervention is so important because you know your child best, and they know you best. You can be involved in your child’s early intervention services in many different ways:

  • You can share information about your child so that your early intervention team can develop the most appropriate interventions. You might be the first person to notice any difficulties your child is having. You’re the person who knows what toys they like to play with and what words they’ve learned to say.
  • You can help your child practice new skills. Most early intervention happens between visits from your service provider. Your service provider spends much less time with your child than you do. You can help your child practice new skills and routines, like getting dressed or playing games. 
  • You can help develop your child’s IFSP. You and your service coordinator will work together to figure out what services are best for your child and your family. 

After six months in an early intervention program, your early intervention team will meet and review your child’s progress. You might revise your IFSP in light of your child’s new development. After one year, you’ll meet again to develop a new IFSP. 

To review, let’s go over who’s who in the early intervention system and what services they might provide. 

Role

Responsibilities

Child and Family Connections (CFC) office

There are 25 CFCs, each of which is responsible for a specific region in Illinois. These agencies have many responsibilities: they process referrals to early intervention, determine whether your child is eligible for early intervention, develop and monitor your IFSP, and help your child transition out of early intervention.

Service Coordinator

The service coordinator is your primary contact at the CFC team. They help determine whether your child is eligible for services, work with you to develop your IFSP, and generally support your family while your child is enrolled in an early intervention program.

Parent Liaison

Parent liaisons are parents whose children have already received early intervention services. Parent liaisons also get credentials as early intervention providers. They’ve been in your shoes and can offer you support, consultation, and resources. 

Local Interagency Council

A group of early intervention families, service providers, and community members who share resources and work to raise public awareness of early intervention.


Paying for Early Intervention

Many parents have one major question about early intervention: how much does it cost? The good news is that early intervention should be affordable for your family, no matter your financial status.

In Illinois, early intervention evaluations and service coordination are free. That means that it doesn’t cost anything to find out if your child is eligible for early intervention services. You don’t have to pay to develop an IFSP or work with a service coordinator. You don’t have to pay for translation services if English isn’t your native language. 

Depending on your income, the size of your family, and your current out-of-pocket medical expenses, you may have to pay a family participation fee to help cover the cost of early intervention services. Your service coordinator can tell you what the fee will be. 

If you have private insurance, your insurance company might help reduce the cost of early intervention services for the early intervention program, which can lower your family participation fee. Some public benefits, like All Kids, can also help lower the cost of services.

In short, money should not be a barrier to accessing early intervention. If you think your child may be showing signs of a developmental disability, call your local CFC: it doesn’t cost anything to find out if your child is eligible for assistance. 

Transition

Transition is when your child moves from program to program or within a program. Once your child reaches age three, they will no longer be eligible for early intervention program services. Unless you and your service coordinator decide to transition out of early intervention before then, your child will transition out of early intervention when they are three.

The transition should not be an abrupt change. Your early intervention team will start planning your child’s transition at least six months before their third birthday. At that point, your service coordinator will ask you to sign a consent form for referral so that your local school district can receive information about your child. 

Then you’ll attend a transition planning conference to learn about possible services for your child. The conference might include representatives from your child’s school district, local Head Start, or other community services. You and your child might participate in an evaluation to determine what services you’re eligible for. You might work to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for your child. 

The transition can take a variety of forms depending on your child’s unique situation. One common transition would be moving from your early intervention program to a preschool, Head Start program, or another early childhood program. Rest assured that your service coordinator will help you find other options that work for you even if your child isn’t eligible for special education services. 

Benefits of Early Intervention

Now you know how early intervention works. But why does it matter? There are dozens of reasons why early intervention can be good for your family. 

The first three years of your child’s life are some of the most important for their development. The earlier your child starts receiving support, the more likely they are to reach their full potential, avoid any developmental delays, and be able to live independently as an adult. Early intervention programs can also reduce the need for special education and other services for older children. 

If you’re not convinced, just look at the countless examples of children who have benefitted from early intervention services. 

Jalea was born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus. With the help of early intervention services through Easterseals serving Chicagoland & Greater Rockford's Head Start\Early Head Start program, Jalea went from crawling to walking with a walker to walking independently. Jalea’s mom, Kiara, collaborates with the Easterseals staff to set goals and milestones for her daughter. 

EJ was born early and with low birth weight, so his parents had him evaluated for early intervention. Even though he didn’t need special services, the early intervention staff invited EJ to a weekly playgroup where he made new friends and developed new skills. Getting an early intervention assessment was helpful, even though EJ didn’t qualify for special services.

Ben received an autism diagnosis when he was two years old. He started receiving speech and occupational services from Easterseals serving Chicagoland & Greater Rockford's Head Start\Early Head Start program. After a few months, he was able to communicate in sentences, and he continues to make progress. 

Story and Sage were born at 25 weeks. Story had a brain bleed and started receiving occupational therapy, where she went from being unable to lift her head or push herself up to being able to feed herself and demonstrate a range of play skills. Sage had a tracheostomy and started learning sign language so she could communicate with her family with the help of an Easterseals speech language pathologist.

All of these children demonstrate the importance of early screening and intervention. If you can identify the early warning signs of a developmental disability and access early intervention services, you can help give your child the best future possible. 

What’s Next?

If you think your child is showing signs of a developmental disability, don’t delay! Take the Make the First Five Count developmental screening, talk to your child’s doctor, or contact your local CFC. An early intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities might be just what your child needs to succeed. 

And if you want more, check out these other resources, these tip sheets, or this early intervention guide for families. You can also look into the Child Find Project, which works to raise awareness of and information about early intervention services.
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 The Illinois Early Intervention Program is administered by Easterseals and is funded by the Illinois Department of Human Services.

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