In the best of circumstances, parenthood is tough. When you hit unexpected challenges with your child, such as learning disabilities or developmental delays, it can be that much tougher.
Fortunately, there are many child specialists who can help your family navigate the unexpected and help your child be successful.
Pediatrician? Child Psychologist? Occupational Therapist? WHAT?!
When you’re dealing with developmental challenges, suddenly you’re thrust into a world of different professionals. There are referrals for testing, specialized therapies, counseling, you name it! It can be tough to keep all the different specialists straight.
Here is a breakdown of some of the most common child specialists and what they do:
A pediatrician is a medical doctor who specializes in the care of children and adolescents. Pediatricians perform routine wellness visits and screenings.
Often, these screenings, combined with parental observations and concerns, are some of the first indications that something may be amiss with a child’s development.
If your child has developmental delays, they’ll continue to see their pediatrician. However, you may also see any number of other specialists (psychological, medical, therapeutic) for additional care.
Early identification and diagnosis is so important for many developmental disabilities. As a result, many screening programs and educational efforts have targeted primary care providers like pediatricians as the first line of defense. Most children will see their pediatrician or family doctor many times before they even set foot in a school.
A child psychologist specializes in the behavioral processes of children. A child psychologist may provide specialized testing to screen for and document learning disorders, such as dyslexia, or disabilities such as ADHD.
They may also treat children in need of therapeutic counseling or interventions. If a child is in need of medication, child psychologists will work with pediatricians and/or child psychiatrists as well (psychologists can’t write prescriptions).
A child psychiatrist is a medical doctor who specializes in the care of children with behavioral or thought disorders. As they are a medical doctor, they can prescribe medication to help manage these conditions when necessary.
Some psychiatrists may also provide counseling services. Others may work in partnership with child psychologists, counselors, or other child therapists.
An occupational therapist helps people with physical, cognitive, or sensory challenges. OTs especially focus on things that impact a child’s ability to perform or participate in everyday activities. If your child has trouble feeding himself, for example, this is a challenge an OT might assist with.
Who pays for all these services?
Often, the family must pay out of pocket for many of these specialists. This is unfortunate, as the costs can add up quickly, even with insurance. Add in the fact that insurance may not even cover some visits at all and you can see how this could be a real financial challenge.
Fortunately, there is some assistance available. Depending on your child’s condition(s) and age, he or she may qualify for federal grants or programs (such as Medicaid). Individual counties and states may also have specialized programs available.
Navigating the different options can be tricky. School or county social workers can sometimes help families sort through these options.
Can you access child specialists through school?
In many areas, schools employ some of these important child specialists. When your child sees a school-based psychologist or occupational therapist, those services are free of charge.
Of course, some districts don’t employ such professionals. And in many districts that do, one child specialist is often shared between several schools, somewhat limiting their accessibility.
The role of the school goes beyond just connecting and providing services. If your child’s developmental challenges impair his or her ability to learn, your child may be given an IEP, or Individualized Education Program. An IEP is required by law to ensure students with special educational needs are able to access a free and appropriate public education.
If your child requires an IEP, you, your child, and the school will work together to draft an individualized plan that meets your child’s educational needs.
As the parent, you’re an expert too!
It can be overwhelming to juggle specialists and therapies, on top of everyday parenting responsibilities. You may feel isolated, but you’re not alone.
The CDC estimates that one in six children has one or more developmental disabilities or delays. Many families have walked the path you’re walking.
Just remember: you’re an expert too! No one knows your child like you do.
Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. You are your child’s greatest advocate. An informed parent can make a world of difference!