When you have a baby, it's hard not to start planning for the future immediately. You'll imagine what they'll be like as kids, the adventures they'll have, and the friends they'll make. You'll think ahead to their school years, and maybe even think about what they're going to be when they grow up! It's normal to picture what your child's future will look like. But, as with the majority of parenting, there is just so much you cannot plan for or predict. Many parents start to notice certain behaviors or signs in their toddlers, which can change the future they've been imagining and set them on a different course. Some special needs or disabilities become apparent in early childhood, but it can be hard to know what to look for, or to understand of the symptoms or signs your toddler is exhibiting are signs they may have special needs.
How can I tell if my child has special needs?
Some disabilities are obvious or easier to recognize, such as physical disabilities like blindness or deafness. But neurodivergent disabilities can be harder to recognize or detect. Every child develops at different rates, but there are some key milestones they should be hitting by certain ages. Typically, if you begin to notice that your child isn't meeting their developmental milestones when they should, you should bring it to your pediatrician's attention and start paying close attention to the milestones they are (or are not) hitting. Many fine motor, developmental, language, and sensory delays can be spotted within the first year of your child's life.
What are the warning signs?
If you're concerned that your toddler has special needs, there are some signs to watch for and discuss with your pediatrician. For example, if your toddler hasn't started using simple words like "mama" or "dada" by the time they're 1, engages in or repeats behavior that could be destructive or harmful (hitting, banging their head, excessive tantrums with an inability to self-soothe or come out of them), doesn't respond to their name by the time they're 1, avoids eye contact or physical contact, or gets excessively upset by small changes in their routine, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician to talk about your concerns.
How can I have my child evaluated?
If you're concerned that your toddler is exhibiting signs of having special needs, it's important to talk to your pediatrician as soon as possible. Early intervention is key in managing special needs and disabilities, and getting your child into the appropriate therapies as soon as possible can be incredibly beneficial. You can request that your child be evaluated by a therapist or doctor who specializes in early childhood development, or you can contact your state's early intervention program to request an evaluation without a referral from your doctor. Toddlers can be evaluated to check for language and motor skills, development, and behavioral issues.
What can be done to help a child?
Toddlers with special needs can be enrolled in your state's early intervention program, which will offer therapies and services to help families. Services are typically done in-home, and can include therapy to help your toddler with their language, motor, and social skills. You may also enlist the help of a therapist or social services to manage behavioral issues, which can also provide a network of support. Your child will be evaluated again before they turn 3 to see if they will continue to need services and therapy once they start school. If they do, you'll work with their team to develop a plan for special education services as early as preschool.