Developmental Therapists—Gatekeepers for Pediatric Care

Updated on May 11, 2012

In medicine, general practitioners are known as the gatekeepers to the health care system. They look at the overall health of a patient before directing them to other specialists if needed.

Developmental therapists serve in much of the same role in children, especially in children ages birth to five who may need Early Intervention services due to a pending diagnosis of Autism and/or other neurodevelopment disorders.

“Developmental therapists look at the big picture of a child’s life and specifically HOW that child is developing during what we feel are the most significant period a youngster’s life which is birth through five years,” said Susan Taylor, a developmental specialist for The Early Learning Institute (TELI) for the past twenty years. “We like to say we tie things together which in many cases involves other types of therapies such as physical, speech and occupational therapy.”

By assessing a child’s “global” development, therapists can help children identity specific areas of need and areas of strength, design play activities to help the child overcome the challenging aspects of their life in order to gain confidence in their own ability and acquire daily living skills.

“A child learns so much through play – from interacting with toys, with other people, imitating what they see around them, exploring and observing.  “If their attempts to interact functionally within their environment is hampered by poor motor coordination, poor language skills, decreased sensory and attention spans, and behavioral issues, then their ability to acquire skills and learn from their interactions and explorations may be compromised,” said Taylor.

While it looks like play, there is a “very real outcome and purpose” in mind, said Anita Hall, a Developmental Therapist who recently retired from TELI after 30 years of service.

She cites “nesting objects,” which is a series of things in one shape such as squares or triangles but in different sizes so that they “nest” inside each other, is one activity that looks like play but has real significance.

“The nesting activity helps us to see if the child has the ability to perceive the difference in sizes and if they are able to recognize those sizes and be able to problem solve by having the items stack inside each other,” she said. “This is a very valuable exercise that takes advantage of a toy that children are already familiar with.”

Another valuable role of the developmental therapist is to help the family of the child create “play routines” so that the learning and growing process can continue while the therapist is not around.

“In most cases, we only have weekly appointments with children  so we try to empower the parents and in some cases the other siblings for extra support,” said Elaine Tylus, a development specialist, who has been with TELI for more than six years. “They are extremely important in helping a child reach their full potential.”

Taylor also said that developmental therapists’ role is even more important today because she sees a trend away from immediate diagnoses  – of Autism, for example – and more towards a waiting period of up to six months before a more official diagnosis is made.

“This gives everyone more time to see if a child’s current behavior is episodic, which it often is, or appears to be more of a permanent condition.” said Taylor. “This delay really helps us gain as much information as we can before a care plan is recommended.”

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