This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.
The recent bi-partisan reaction to proposed cuts to acute care therapy services for children with disabilities illustrates a growing recognition that children’s first few years shape the rest of their lives and should be a priority.
Texas legislators, parents, therapists, and advocates who have spoken out know that early childhood experiences and support make a lifelong difference. Early experiences literally alter the long-term architecture of children’s brains. When children have autism, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome or other conditions likely to result in developmental delays, the right support early in life is particularly important.
The state’s Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program helps local organizations such as Any Baby Can, Easter Seals, and Austin Travis County Integral Care provide critical services to Texans under age three with disabilities and developmental delays. ECI providers and families work as a team in the child’s natural environment, actively engaging families in therapeutic services to promote children’s growth and development.
Thanks to ECI, many young Texans who experienced early childhood challenges are now on a path to success. They have learned to walk and communicate with their families. They can meet more of their developmental milestones and do better in school. That greater ability to learn, socialize, and thrive reduces the need for more costly systems like special education and specialized medical care to address challenges that can become more entrenched and expensive to treat later in life.
Meredith is one of many Texas children who has benefited from ECI. After a child care provider suggested her parents contact their local ECI provider, an evaluation confirmed that Meredith had speech and gross motor delays. Without proper support, those delays in early childhood can lead to academic, social, and emotional difficulties in elementary school and beyond.
But Meredith and her parents worked with their ECI team, and eventually saw the results. Meredith’s mom, Carrie, explains:
"One day, she started to run. Not walk. Run. With the help of ECI and learning sign language, Meredith started to blossom and began to mimic, then she learned how to put two and three words together. Through the 18 months in the program, Meredith has transformed into a running, jumping, chatty girl that lets you know exactly what she wants.”
Unfortunately, support for children like Meredith is at risk. This past session the state Legislature put in motion a broad range of cuts to reimbursement rates for therapists serving low-income children with special needs — cuts that many legislators have realized they should revisit.
The cuts would reduce the resources available for children helped by ECI, as well as other Texas children in need, providing just the latest hit to kids with disabilities and developmental delays. The Legislature cut ECI services during the economic downturn of 2011 and never restored funding. As the program became more focused on the highest need children, the average cost per child naturally increased. Yet state legislators ultimately reduced funding for ECI this session, putting access to these services at risk.
During the relative calm after the legislative session, they have an opportunity to take a closer look at these services and get the policy decision right.
As state leaders address the rate cuts, they should also commit to bolstering the ECI program. They should ensure that our state’s youngest children with special needs get the support they need during the critical development period before age three, helping more children enter school ready to learn rather than behind the curve.
Alice Bufkin is an Early Opportunities Policy Associate for Texans Care for Children.