Special-needsearly screening plan could get trial in South San Francisco 

Michelle Antonio O’Brien hopes a program to identify preschoolers with special needs, like her son Jake, will lead to earlier treatment for others.

Jake, now 11, wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 3 years old, in spite of regular visits to the doctor, including to an early childhood development specialist, said Antonio O’Brien, who sits on the county Commission on Disabilities.

"I wish I hadn’t lost a year or two in developing his speech, which Jake didn’t learn until he was 4," Antonio O’Brien said Monday.

Stories like Jake’s are a growing concern to early development experts who point out that 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of life. In response, county officials have developed a $4.3 million three-year program likely to be piloted in South San Francisco in the coming year that would screen hundreds of children ages 0-5 for mental disabilities.

"The fear is that a large number of children are falling through the gaps," said Tammy Moss, director of the county’s First 5 Commission, which will vote on the plan Jan. 22.

An estimated 15,000 kids ages 0-5 show risk factors for mental disabilities in San Mateo County, but don’t necessarily qualify for full special education services until they develop more severe problems later on, Moss said. It is many of these kids the commission program hopes to identify and treat before their handicap leaves them with too much ground to make up, officials said.

Pediatricians would be provided with information on where the parents of special-needs children can go for answers, and teachers would be instructed on the best ways to incorporate special-needs children into everyday classes, Moss said.

"It’s very important that the children are identified so that their parents can get support and enroll them in treatment early," said Antonio O’Brien, a Foster City resident.

While some worry that identifying more kids with special needs could threaten the financial strength of school districts by requiring them to pay for the expensive services of a few over the general education needs of many, research suggests early treatment could save on more expensive special-education costs later on, officials said.

"Theoretically, this intervention wouldn’t cause the schools to go bankrupt because it would reduce costs over the long run," Moss said. Much of the savings would be realized not only in lower special education costs, but welfare, health care and criminal justice outlays, officials said.

Vote on universal testing ahead

The pilot program, paid for with tobacco taxes, is scheduled for a final vote January 22, at the First 5 Commission’s regularly scheduled meeting.

The program would serve about 500 children over three years and could be used to promote wider mental disabilities screenings and one-stop special-education needs resources for parents countywide, First 5 Commission member Tammy Moss said.

Nine counties in California have had similar programs in place for more than a year.


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