Social Work Early Intervention for Young Children with Developmental Disabilities

Article excerpt

Social workers' awareness of and formal involvement in family-centered early intervention for infants and toddlers who are at risk of or who have developmental disabilities has increased considerably during the past 15 years. The functional role that social workers can play on early intervention teams and as coordinators of early intervention services is underscored by the formal recognition of the discipline in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Despite the relevance of social work to early intervention, personnel often enter early intervention practice without the benefit of formal preparation related to very young children with developmental disabilities. This article provides an overview of the definition and identification of developmental disabilities, and discusses the role of and challenges to social work in early intervention.

Key words


early intervention

social work roles


The enactment of the Education of the Handicapped Act Amendments of 1986 (P.L. 99-457) marked the be ginning of mandated family-centered services for young children who are at risk of or who have identified developmental disabilities. Part H of this landmark legislation (now Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) [P.L. 90-247]) challenged a hereto-fore child-oriented service system to consider the needs of the child in the context of the family. This legislation also challenged all professionals who work with children and families to increase their awareness of and competence in the principles underlying family-centered early intervention for infants and toddlers who are at risk of or who have identified developmental disabilities. Not only is social work one discipline formally acknowledged in the federal legislation, but by virtue of the ascribed role of social work in health and human services, social work is a logical discipline for providing family-centered services to families of children with developmental disabilities. Effective practice in early intervention, however, is a function of a philosophy and skill base that is different from that developed through traditional social work training.


Attention to the special social and educational needs of people with developmental disabilities can be tracked back to France in the late 18th through the 19th centuries and the work of pioneers such as Itard, Sequin, and Benet. This movement found an audience in the United States in the early 20th century with the work of Sequin, Goddard, and Terman. The concept of "developmental disability" (addressed hereafter as "developmental concerns") was formally introduced into the health and human service system by the Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Amendments of 1970 (Breen & Richmond, 1979; Ehlers, Prothero, & Langone, 1982). The use of developmental disability represented a refinement of earlier terminology, a progressive shift in attitudes toward people with developmental concerns, and a focus on younger individuals. The 1970 definition of developmental disability reflected a historically clinical and categorical perspective and the description of developmental concerns as a grou p of conditions that are chronic, have a neurodevelopmental origin, and substantively influence an individual's functional abilities (Crocker, 1989). Under the law, developmental disabilities were categorically defined as mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, or other neurological conditions that could be closely related to mental retardation. Other conditions could include, but were not be limited to, sensory impairment (for example, deafness), autism, pervasive developmental disorders, attention deficit disorder, syndromes of multiple congenital anomalies, and learning disabilities. This definition reflected the historically held focus on individuals, mental retardation, and categorical labels. …


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