As anyone in my office (or my family) will tell you, I spend way too many hours with my eyes glued to my laptop screen. So I appreciate a good excuse to escape the virtual world and drop into the real one.
Last week I said “yes” to an invitation to attend an open house at the newly opened Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development in Phoenix. This place, despite its big name, is all about little people. Specifically about understanding little people and what makes them tick.
The center is staffed by a team of professionals — in medicine, psychology, physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and more — who combine their expertise to evaluate children for developmental delays or disabilities and collaborate to recommend interventions.
I stepped off the elevator to a spacious area with cheerful, lemon-colored walls above wooden pegboard paneling. A huge fish tank commanded attention in a waiting area at one end of the room, where pint-sized tables and chairs and a variety of toys welcomed young visitors.
I met people I have read about and admired for years, including Ginger Ward (founder of Southwest Human Development) and Daniel B. Kessler, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician with a long history at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center who was recently named medical director of the Children’s Developmental Center. I met Terrence Matteo, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and director of the Children’s Developmental Center, and had a chance to thank him for an article he wrote for our October magazine on helping babies sleep.
A sign pointed visitors down the hallway to “The playrooms.” The center has four, each of which can be set up in specific ways to help the experts make assessments for issues that may be impeding a child’s physical, intellectual, emotional or social development.
The first playroom was set up to evaluate children for autism. “What do you look for?” I asked.
“We look at the level of development of their play,” Matteo told me. “Are they rigid in their play? Are they using items in a way not intended? Are they banging cars together [instead of "driving" them around the room]? Are they throwing the plates? Are they able to request toys? What’s their level of social communication?” Such sessions are videotaped from a small, dark room behind a one-way glass window so that the multi-disciplinarian team of professionals can work together to make an assessment, and offer recommendations to the parents.
Another playroom was set up for feeding evaluations. Children who are referred to the center for such observation may be exhibiting anything from difficulty swallowing to muscle-related speech impediments. This room also has a one-way mirror behind which several professionals observe parents and their children interact.
The room is set up like a kitchen — with small tables and chairs, toy appliances and a variety of plastic foods scattered about on tabletops and counters. The experts watch to see what happens. Does the child show interest or apathy? Does the child play with the pretend food or avoid touching it? Does the parent engage in play, guiding it with inquisitive comments and gestures, or sit passively and watch? The smallest observations can help the professionals piece together the puzzle to help them understand why some children do not enjoy the process of eating and do not grow and thrive as they should.
Before they even get to this room, the family has undergone a home visit by one of the center’s professionals so that interactions can be observed in the context of comfortable surroundings.
“With babies and young children, everything is so intertwined — parent, child, society, environment,” Matteo says. “You don’t want to look at the child in isolation.”
This is is a time-intensive, ideal, “best practices” approach to early childhood development assessment and intervention — and it’s not cheap. That’s where Development Director Laura Chasko comes in. It is her job it is to seek grants and donations to support this work.
The center works with families to avoid or minimize out-of-pocket expenses through qualification for primary and secondary insurance reimbursement and DDD, AzEIP, or school district eligibility. Any out-of-pocket expenses are reviewed under a sliding fee scale consideration.
“Our goal is to serve 300 families each year,” Laura told me. Right now, as they work to get the word out, there is not even a waiting list.
Southwest Human Development is Arizona’s largest nonprofit child development agency, providing programs and support for more than 135,000 children ages birth to 5 and their families. In addition to the Children’s Developmental Center, the organization provides programs including the A.D.A.P.T Shop, the Birth to Five Helpline (which offers free advice 24/7), the Good Fit Counseling Center and more.
Photos by Daniel Friedman