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If your baby has special needs, you're not alone

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Thea Chimenti was prepared. Doctors had warned her throughout her difficult pregnancy that her child might be born with a developmental disorder.

Chase entered the world nine years ago prematurely at 28 weeks. When Chimenti brought him home to Boca Raton, she called the Easter Seals Florida Treasure Coast Early Steps program for help.

“They gave me paperwork in the newborn intensive care unit to enroll my son in an early intervention program,” says Chimenti, of her son, Chase, who has cerebral palsy. “I didn’t know how severe his delay would be, but I knew to seek help immediately.”

Unlike Chimenti, though, thousands of parents may not know how to get help. They don’t have to look far. Palm Beach County offers several programs, by age, for children diagnosed with a developmental disorder or who just need a boost catching up to peers.

In addition to Early Steps for children up to age 3, The Arc of Palm Beach County offers the First Step to Success. Both programs, which receive funding from Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County, work with parents to determine the best approach to help children behind in areas such as gross- and fine-motor skills, language and social skills, and emotional maturity.

Early Steps is for children diagnosed with a disorder, while First Step works with children who scored low on screenings and developmental tests but haven’t been diagnosed.

Dozens of sources, such as pediatricians, hospitals, child care programs and community programs, refer children to these programs.

“We do a full evaluation to determine if a child needs help and what kind of help,” says Marissa Barrera, Early Steps program coordinator. “We have a team of professionals who provide services such as speech therapy, etc.”

Specialists in each program meet as much as once a week with families, either in their homes or somewhere convenient in the community. Therapy might resemble play, Barrera says, but it’s geared to help children catch up to others their age. The Early Steps program helps as many as 4,000 children a year in Palm Beach, Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, she says.

“We have to be as flexible as possible when working with the parents,” says Ruth Acosta-Flores, First Step program director. “We use toys to elicit certain skills and to make sure the child is working on the skills necessary to help them catch up.”

These programs have been instrumental in Chase’s development, says Chimenti, whose daughter, Chloe, 11, has mild cerebral palsy.

“It has been such a rewarding experience, and it has taught me so much,” says Chimenti, whose son last received therapy at J.C. Mitchell Elementary School in Boca Raton. “I really believe in what they’re doing. I don’t think Chase would have come as far as he has if not for the early intervention he got and the therapy he continues to get from these programs.”

SOURCES:

• Marissa Barrera, program coordinator,  Treasure Coast Early Steps, Easter Seals 
• Ruth Acosta-Flores, program director, First Step to Success, The Arc of Palm Beach County

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