Identifying Preschoolers with Special Needs (page 2)
Beginning when a child with an eligible disability is 3 years old and until he or she reaches age 21, the child has the legal right to special education and any necessary related services. As we have described, agencies may have been providing services to children from the time they were infants. When the children turn 3, however, this is no longer an option; public schools must provide services. If the child has been in a Part C program, the law requires a smooth transition between the early intervention program and the preschool program.
In general, professionals often find it difficult to accurately determine if a young child has a disability unless, as we have said, the child shows clear physical characteristics or indicators that suggest a disability. These characteristics are usually associated with conditions such as cerebral palsy, visual disabilities, hearing impairments, severe intellectual disabilities, or multiple disabilities. Aside from such indicators, professionals must rely on developmental lags and behavioral characteristics that might suggest that the child has a condition such as autism or an intellectual disability. The younger the child is and the less pronounced the developmental lag, the more challenging it is to make a definitive determination. This is primarily because there is the chance that the child will outgrow the delay. But because we don't know if this is going to occur, and we do know that the earlier we can intervene when a child has a disability, the better, then the accuracy of early identification is always a critical issue. For an example of this dilemma, examine the information that we provide about a child who may have a disability in "Can You Help Me with This Student?" What do you think? Does this child have a disability? How would you have reacted if you were the child's preschool teacher?
Part C services for infants and toddlers might not include children such as Jeremy, simply because when such a child is younger, professionals cannot always reliably determine that he or she has special needs. As the child gets a little older, however, the needs become more apparent, and he or she is likely to be served in a preschool program. Children who are good candidates for preschool programs will show risks primarily in two areas: communication delays and challenging behaviors. There are also certain sociocultural factors that suggest a child may be at risk for later delays.
Lagging communication is the most prevalent symptom of developmental delays. However, if there is no other readily observable condition, often these children will not be recognized until they are 2 to 3 years old (Wetherby, Goldstein, Cleary, Allen, & Kublin, 2003). Recently, some prelinguistic communication characteristics have been shown to be associated with later language abilities. For example, before children can use words, they typically regulate communication by using eye gaze, affect, gestures, and vocalizations. A lack of these prelinguistic characteristics may predict later language delays, and such language delays are characteristic of children with autism spectrum disorders, which includes autism and related disorders such as Asperger's syndrome (Wetherby et al., 2003; see Chapter 9).
Challenging In addition to early language delays, inappropriate and uncommon behavior in young children, such as acts of aggression or ongoing disruptive behavior, may signal long-term behavioral problems (Drotar, 2002). Self-injurious behaviors (SIBs) such as head banging, self-scratching, or self-biting are also very troubling. Sometimes such behaviors appear as a part of normal development but then disappear. When they do not, however, concern about severe developmental delays may be warranted. SIBs are often associated with specific developmental disability syndromes, including Cornelia de Lange, Fragile X, Lesch-Nyhan, Smith-Magenis, and 5p (or cri-du-chat) (MacLean & Symons, 2002).
Certain sociocultural factors can place children at risk for later cognitive, academic, and behavioral difficulties in school. These factors can even affect children who physically and behaviorally appear to be developing normally. The impact of sociocultural factors have been identified in studies going back for a half-century or more (Uzgiris, 1970), and children exposed to these conditions may be identified in the first 15 months of life based on some of these factors. For example, La Paro, Olsen, and Pianta (2002) found that children under the age of 16 months who were from poor homes in which parents provided little stimulation, whose mothers lacked sensitivity, and who exhibited behavior problems early in life were well below average in language development and intellectual development at 36 months of age. The authors noted that, when such children are young, they often are not identified or are not eligible for special services, even though it is likely that they will later end up in special education. During their early years they may have speech and language problems or difficulty in learning basic concepts (e.g., numbers, alphabet, days of the week, colors, shapes), and they may be restless and easily distracted. Sometimes these children might have trouble interacting with their peers or could have difficulty in following directions or routines, and their fine-motor skills may be slow to develop (Schwab Foundation for Learning, 1999).
Indicators of Communication Problems
- No babbling by 12 months, no single words by 16 months, or no two-word spontaneous utterances by 24 months
- Failure to respond when name is called by familiar person
- No engagement in joint attention
- Limited gestures by 12 months
- No imitation of another's facial or body movements
- Apparent lack of emotional concern for others, such as when another person is accidentally hurt
- Limited interest in toys, playing, and pretending; focusing more on specific items and actions (e.g., twirling a string)
- Loss of language or social skills at any age
(Source: Adapted from Kasari & Wong, 2002; Woods & Wetherby, 2003)
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