Early Intervention is a state-sponsored program that allows children 0-36months to receive special services should they qualify for them in the areas of language, motor, or social skills.
What usually happens is, someone like you or your pediatrician may suspect that your child has developmental delays in one or more areas (i.e. they are not meeting some age-appropriate criteria on a developmental checklist). If you as the parent want a free evaluation from Early Intervention, you need to get a referral from your pediatrician–they will almost always support you unless you have a peculiarly unreasonable doctor–and then you just call your local Early Intervention place and set up a time. (You can get the number online or from the pediatrician or local elementary school.) A small group of evaluators will come to your house and give your child a thorough exam–they look at various language, motor, and behavioral abilities. It is very non-threatening, and you get to be present the whole time. (Get a babysitter for any other children, though!) The evaluators will ask you lots of questions about developmental milestones, prenatal history, what your child is or is not doing, and why you are concerned. The evaluations are largely fun for kids, and the testers do not force your child to do something if they are unwilling or insecure about it. At the end of the evaluation, the Early Intervention team will score your child’s results and talk to you about them. They will “grade” your child’s abilities within several sub-categories (i.e. gross motor, fine motor, expressive language, receptive language…) and tell you what developmental level they are currently operating at (i.e. 20-month level, 30-months). You can then see if your child is behind in some area (or more than one) in comparison to his/her age, and to what extent.
After the evaluation, you don’t have to commit to anything right away. There will be quite a bit of paperwork, but they want you to talk things over with your spouse, etc. They will even come back out or talk to you on the phone afterwards if you need more input. If your child is significantly enough behind developmentally, they will recommend a course of action where one of their team members will come over to your house (usually once a week, for an hour) to have a special playtime with your child. She will tailor the playtime to your child’s needs and personality, and it is normally very fun. You are encouraged to watch and participate, as they will show you different ways to work with your child’s weak areas. You can decide not to participate, but this is not a babysitting time so you should at least be within eye/earshot.
You have time to think about whether or not you agree with the evaluation and course of action, but Early Intervention only provides services until the child is 36months old. After that, they must attend the public preschool and get another evaluation done there to see if they qualify for services (and what kind). If they do qualify (meaning, they still have issues), the preschool will recommend placement there, and the administrators will need to draw up a special education plan (called an IEP–individualized education plan) for your child. This IEP is a legal document (meaning, the school pledges their commitment to provide services for your child), and it will have a list of specific, testable goals that they want your child to reach in one year. You normally have a meeting about it, sign it, and meet again the following year (with progress reports given to you a couple times in between).
The benefit to Early Intervention is it’s not so involved as the preschool step. It is free (or cheap), non-threatening, and non-legal. It can be a little intimidating to have people test your child, but it is a non-binding step that, if done when signs of a problem are emerging, can really help the child overcome and get back on the developmental track. My one friend who is a speech pathologist with Early Intervention says that sometimes they even work with newborn babies who they know will have problems because of Down’s Syndrome, cleft palate, or some other detectable problem at birth, and they are able to make remarkable progress. By the time your child gets to preschool age, at 3yrs, some things are already harder to change. And at 4 yrs, even more. So act soon and get an evaluation if you are at all concerned.