LONGMONT — Three-year-old Seamus Ratliff ran straight to the bin of toys along the wall and picked out a small, yellow train he could scoot around the floor.
As he focused his attention on the train, Jeanne Clifton, an occupational therapist for Child Find, picked up a rolling wooden pig, powered at the touch of a large button on his back, and set it moving in Seamus’ direction.
The tot immediately transferred his attention to the pig, pushed down the button and sent it racing across the floor as he chased after it.
Seamus’ parents brought him to Child Find, an early-childhood program offered through the St. Vrain Valley School District, because they were worried he was behind in his speech development.
Chris Ratliff, Seamus’ father, told the therapists he and his wife took Seamus to the doctor first to have his hearing tested.
“In terms of physical ability, he’s fine,” Chris said. “He tries to speak. In the last month and a half, he’s speaking a lot more, but you have to pay attention to what he’s saying or you miss it.”
Chris added that his son “knows what he wants to say, but it is not intelligible.”
As the child played with various things, certain words and short phrases popped out of his mouth, like “What that?” and “ball,” intermixed with unintelligible sing-song.
“He’s got a lot of word approximations,” speech therapist Susan Morrison told Chris. “Sounds are developmental. By age 3, we want to understand you.”
Through play, Clifton and Morrison attempted to get Seamus to interact with them and to verbalize his thoughts, wants and needs. They also observed him to see how he could complete certain tasks, like stringing beads, rocking in a boat, singing a song and completing a puzzle.
The St. Vrain Child Find program was founded in the mid-1970s, when the federal government mandated that every school district offer this type of service.
Six percent of the program’s funding comes from the federal government. Additional funds come from state special education dollars, but 80 percent comes from the district’s general fund, said Edy-Kay Ward, St. Vrain’s Child Find coordinator.
The organization’s role is to “identify any children with disabilities that would qualify for special education services,” Ward said.
The agency works with children from birth to age 3. It offers free vision and hearing screenings, as well as play evaluations.
“We look at cognitive development — how they’re learning just through play and toys,” Ward said. “We test physical movement, especially with the little ones. Are they rolling yet, using their hands, standing; do they have gross motor skills?”
In evaluating a child’s level of communication, therapists look at a number of things.
With infants, they look at whether they are beginning to babble, imitate language, look toward sound or recognize their mom and dad.
They also ask parents questions: Does your child sleep through the night? Does she eat? Did she have a traumatic beginning to life? Was she ever abused?
“We have to know the whole health history of a child,” Ward said.
Many of the children who come to Child Find are in foster care, which brings up another torrent of questions to help evaluate a child’s progress.
After a child has been tested and evaluated, program staff compare notes. If a child has a disability, the program refers him to either district special education classes or, in the case of children younger than 3, area therapy play groups or nonprofit organizations that offer aid.
Child Find evaluates about 35 children a week.
Many parents who bring their children in for screenings or full evaluations are apprehensive about their children being labeled as having a disability, but special education is much different from what it was five to 15 years ago, Ward said.
“Early intervention is what we profess. We see that it works,” she said.
Some children qualify for services at age 1 or 2 and can be out of special education before they get to kindergarten, Ward said.
“It is working to work on those developmental delays early and not waiting until they are 5 or 6,” she said.
The Ratliffs brought Seamus to Child Find on the recommendation of their pediatrician, who recommended he see a speech therapist if he was still having troubles by age 3, Chris Ratliff said.
“We’ve tried not to get too worried or fixated on it,” he said. “For all other intents and purposes, he is a normal kid. We want to be proactive and get him help if he needs it.”
Paula Aven Gladych can be reached at 303-684-5211, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.