Chattanooga providers work to meet demand as Tennessee expands age for early intervention

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Siskin Children's Institute, at 1101 Carter St., is seen Aug. 3. Siskin is among the Chattanooga-area providers that offer home and community-based early intervention services to young children with developmental delays.
Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Siskin Children's Institute, at 1101 Carter St., is seen Aug. 3. Siskin is among the Chattanooga-area providers that offer home and community-based early intervention services to young children with developmental delays.

Local nonprofit providers that serve children with developmental delays are scaling up to meet anticipated demand as Tennessee's early intervention system now covers participants until the start of the school year after their fifth birthday.

The Tennessee Early Intervention System is a voluntary program that offers free therapy and other support services to infants and young children with developmental delays or disabilities. While federal law requires states to provide those services through age 3, Tennessee in October became the first state to give eligible families the option to receive early intervention services for children until they reach kindergarten age.

Julie Hill, home and community-based early intervention director at Siskin Children's Institute, said children would historically exit the home-based system and begin getting support from the local school system after they turn 3.

"The beauty of the program is that parents have a choice now," Hill said in a phone interview. "They can choose to access supports and services through the school system or they can continue to ... receive services in home and in their natural environment."

(READ MORE: UTC to takeover Siskin Children's Institute early learning center at Little Miss Mag)

One of the hallmarks of early intervention is meeting children where they're already comfortable, such as at their home, Hill said.

"We know that kids learn best from people that they know and in environments they're familiar with, and we want to support families with what they're already doing," she said.

Much of the work focuses on family and caregiving coaching, Hill said. Home visitors teach parents and caregivers how to respond to their child's behavior and help them to meet their milestones. Sessions occur either once a week or twice a month for about an hour.

One of the primary goals is to get children ready for kindergarten, but Hill said it's about more than academic readiness.

"It's about inclusion and helping children of all abilities to be included in daily life," she said. "Our goal is to support and strengthen the family's life, help parents to feel good about how they're teaching and what they're teaching and just help their daily routines go better."

Tennessee first moved to extend the age for early intervention services from 3 to 4 last year.

Cara Kumari, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, said in an email 2,330 families have chosen to extend services beyond age 3 since implementation. Currently, 1,538 children are receiving services through the extended option, she said.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities seeks funding boost to programs)

The Tennessee Early Intervention System provided services to approximately 17,990 children in fiscal year 2023, according to a news release.

Siskin and Signal Centers are the two Chattanooga-based providers that receive state grants to offer intervention services, Hill said.

Demand for the services is growing, in part because there's more awareness about the importance of early intervention.

"We're getting more and more diagnoses of autism — people are more aware of delays — and so we're catching kids a little bit earlier," she said.

Although Siskin closed its early learning centers this fall, the provider continues to offer medical and therapy services to roughly 5,000 children with developmental delays and disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism spectrum disorders, annually.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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