Increasing research shows that the early years in a child's life are a critical period for healthy development.
Maria Cummings agrees and feels that identifying and treating developmental delays early can result in a better outcome for the child.
Cummings' title is Early Interventionist at the Payson Early Intervention Program. The program, part of Pinal Gila Community Child Services, targets children up to 3 years old who may have a some type of developmental delay.
"We serve children birth to 3 and they qualify by being in the 50th percentile or lower in one of the five developmental domains," Cummings said.
The five developmental domains Cummings refers to are physical, cognitive, social/emotional, communication, and adaptive.
A referral from parents or health care providers allows a child to get a preliminary screening and if warranted, an evaluation by a specialist. If it is determined that they have a disability such as a developmental delay, the family can receive the services free of charge, regardless of income.
"It is a free service," Cummings said. "There are no income guidelines -- services are free to any child found to have a developmental delay."
Cummings first makes a visit to the child's home to see what the needs are.
"Initially I find out what the family needs most and provide them with information and referrals," Cummings said. "I go in to the home once a week for an hour to an hour-and-a-half and work with the child as well as the parents or caretakers."
Once a month, a physical, occupational, and speech therapist come up from the valley and work with the children on whatever the delay may be.
The occupational therapist works with children on fine motor skills, such as picking things up and the physical therapist works on the total range of motion.
The program serves children with more severe disabilities as well as the less obvious developmental delays that often go undiagnosed.
With intervention and treatment, these delays can often be reversed. Cummings knows about this from personal experience.
Having two children who have had early intervention for developmental delays, she witnessed the importance of the service for her own children.
"My son was born ten weeks premature and spent nine weeks in the hospital," Cummings said.
Premature babies are automatically referred to the program because they are at risk for problems associated with prematurity such as cerebral palsy.
"At nine months, my son had services for speech and physical therapy because it was determined that he was borderline for cerebral palsy," Cummings said. "Because he had services early on, by the time he got to kindergarten, he was no longer identified as having any developmental delays."
Around the same time, Cummings became concerned about her daughter's language skills.
"My daughter was 2-and-a-half at the time and was not really speaking," Cummings said. "She had many ear infections and tubes in her ears. We had her screened and she had a significant speech delay so both my son and daughter began receiving services from the Early Intervention program."
Cummings' daughter, who received services later, had problems with reading later on in school. Although her skills are improving, Cummings believes she may not have had problems had she been helped earlier.
"Speech impacts children's ability to read later on," Cummings said. "Had I known that this service was available then, I probably would have gotten my daughter services earlier."
Now that Cummings is the one providing services, she understands the struggles that parents of children with disabilities face.
"You can imagine that if you're told that your child has a disability, even if it is a relatively insignificant disability -- it is a disability nonetheless," Cummings said. "And there's a lot of stress that goes along with this."
Cummings said parents of children with developmental delays often experience guilt, frustration and isolation.
"I offer support to parents," Cummings said. "Sometimes it's just a shoulder to cry on."
In some cases, parents are responsible for certain types of delays such as fetal alcohol syndrome, but Cummings said that many developmental delays can't be attributed to the parents.
"Many times there is nothing the parent could have done to prevent it," Cummings said. "Sometimes it is beyond our control.
Besides providing support to the parents, Cummings models different strategies that help the child improve or overcome their delay.
"I'll bring toys and do activities that develop the areas that they are delayed in." Cummings said.
Cummings believes that some parents are in denial about their child's development and that not addressing the issue costs their children valuable time that might have changed their future.
One example is with children with speech delays.
"Sometimes if a parent can understand their child, they think there isn't a problem," Cummings said. "The question is can other people understand them? As parents we learn to interpret our child's cries and sometimes their language as well."
Although parents should be aware of the developmental milestones, Cummings wants to emphasize that children develop differently.
"Just because your child is not doing what your neighbor's child is doing doesn't necessarily indicate a developmental delay," Cummings said.
"Children develop at different levels and I would encourage parents not to compare their children."
"But," Cummings said, "If there is something nagging at you -- a feeling that something isn't quite right, then it's best to talk to your pediatrician or come here for a screening."
Again, Cummings emphasizes the importance of early intervention.
"There is a huge impact from birth to 3 years old," Cummings said. "If we don't address some of those issues at that time, we run the risk of those issues following that child for a lifetime."
As an early interventionist, Cummings has seen many success stories that can be attributed, at least in part, to her dedication to helping children who are delayed in some area of their development.
"My philosophy has always been that every child can learn -- some just take longer."