As autism and other disabilities are diagnosed earlier in life, the need for collaboration with service providers and families occurs sooner, too.
Early identification and intervention through physical therapy (PT) has benefited families who have children with developmental delays, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, Down Syndrome, neuromuscualar conditions and autism. "When children are seen earlier, many problems can be handled before they reach school age," said Karen Mohring, a physical therapist at Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA) in Sioux City.
If parents suspect a delay in their child's development, physical therapists work to promote motor development. Therapists will evaluate children when milestones are not being seen at certain stages. For example, by the age of four to six months, a child should be able to push up with their forearms when lying on their stomach or sitting alone by eight to 10 months.
Physical therapists provide activities that parents can do with their children at home to promote motor development using items typically found in households, as well as special equipment, if it is needed. "Children learn by moving to explore their environment," Mohring explained.
Recently, Northwest AEA provided physical therapy for an infant who had heart surgery. The physical therapist made home visits to give the mother suggestions for activities to help the baby learn over the course of a couple years to roll over, sit alone, pull to stand at furniture, crawl, walk with support, and finally walk alone. The child was apprehensive at first but eventually gained the strength and confidence through play-based activities to accomplish these skills.
Some students also require assistance in kindergarten and beyond. Enabling children to become more mobile is one of the goals of the physical therapy teams at Iowa's AEAs. Physical therapists provide therapeutic services to maximize children's functional motor abilities through assessment, intervention, advocacy and education related to their unique needs within the school setting. They accomplish these tasks by collaborating with parents, home intervention and classroom teachers, occupational therapists, speech pathologists, social workers, psychologists and nurses.
Mohring points to data that suggests children who are independently mobile are better able to access their school environment. Proper positioning promotes better and more efficient learning.
"Our service delivery model has changed over the past few years to one that used to pull children out of the classroom to now assisting them within the classroom," said Mohring. "Support to teachers enables more success in school."
Physical therapists design interventions to improve a student's physical ability to access and participate in his or her educational program.
October is National Physical Therapy Month, which is celebrated to raise awareness about the services available by physical therapists across the country.