The organization, which is pushing for a $100 million increase to the federal budget for services to young children with disabilities, is pushing for better detection of developmental delays in infants and toddlers. The current budget is about $440 million. President Obama has proposed a $20 million increase.
Easter Seals says that each year there are about 5 million children at risk for developmental delays, but only about 1 million actually get early intervention services. Last month, Easter Seals launched a new questionnaire for parents that gives them guidance about whether, based on their answers, they should talk to their children's doctors. The new Ages & Stages Questionnaire can also be mailed upon request to parents and is available in Spanish.
The free screening tool can be used repeatedly. While considered a precise gauge, "it's designed so you don't have to have a Ph.D.in early childhood education to fill it out," said Patricia Wright, the national director of Easter Seals' autism arm.
While states are tasked with finding and serving children with disabilities before kindergarten, "it's really up to parents" to identify possible delays, the effects of which may be something that can be eliminated or diminished greatly before formal schooling begins, said Katy Neas, a senior vice president of Easter Seals.
Wright pointed to recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 1 in 88 children age 8 and younger have autism. The CDC also found that the median age of diagnosis of some type of autism spectrum disorder was older than age 6.
"You can accurately diagnose all of those at 24 months," she said.
In the long run, Neas said, early diagnosis and intervention will reduce special education costs. Some 11 percent of children who are served in federally funded early intervention programs end up not needing special education services, she said.