In Florida, children under three years of age who have developmental delays may be eligible for early-intervention services through the state's Early Steps program. Early Steps is administered by Children's Medical Services (CMS) of the state's Department of Health. These five tips can help you find out about how early intervention works in Florida and get your child started with needed services and supports.
1. Consult with your pediatrician. To be found eligible for early intervention in Florida, your child will need to have significant developmental delays or an established medical condition. Your doctor should be knowledgeable about these requirements and able to make the referral to Early Steps or give you the information necessary to do so. The importance of early intervention and the availability of these services is a good reason to urge your doctor to move past the "wait and see" phase and toward an identification of problems and needed therapies. An Early Steps brochure from the Children's Medical Services site can give you more information about the program and why it's important.
2. Call Early Steps to request help for your child, if your doctor or another professional has not done this for you. The phone number is 1-800-654-4440, and the staff member who answers should be able to get you started in applying to the program or answer any questions you or your family members may have about it. You might also contact the office of a parent advocacy center near you; the Central Florida Parent Center has an interactive map you can use to find resources in your part of the state. These organizations often allow you to talk to a parent educator about what you need to know to successfully advocate for your child, in early intervention and beyond.
3. Your child will be evaluated by a team including speech, physical, and occupational therapists to develop an Individualized Family Services Plan (IFSP) that determines the services your child will receive and where they will be delivered. According to the "Early Steps Eligibility" page on the CMS site, evaluators will check for delays in six areas of development: physical (health, hearing, vision), cognitive (thinking, learning, problem solving), gross and fine motor (moving, walking, grasping, coordination), communication (babbling, languages, speech, conversation), social/emotional (playing, interacting), and adaptive (feeding, toileting, dressing). Your goals and wishes should also be considered in the development of the IFSP, and you may be asked to fill out forms or attend interviews. To educate yourself about the IFSP process and what it involves in Florida, read the "Family Involvement in Early Steps" page on the CMS site and download "The Early Intervention/IFSP Process" from the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center.
4. When you receive the IFSP, review it to make sure you agree with the services specified and the site at which they will be delivered, which should be in your home or in other places your child naturally learns and plays. Your consent is required before the services can be delivered, and you have a right to turn down anything you disagree with or back out of the program altogether. You will be assigned a service coordinator who will organize all the services specified in the IFSP and stay in touch with you to make sure that your child's needs are being met. You can download a contact list by area from the CMS site.
5. Service providers will be assigned to your child, and you can find out more about them through the Florida Central Directory. Collaborate with the therapists who will be working with your child, sharing insights from your experience and asking for suggestions on how you can continue the work your child is doing at home between sessions.