TAMPA — Four-year-old Alexis Saucedo uses only simple words — no complete sentences — when he speaks.
His mother, Marvella Saucedo, sat nearby as an examiner checked his sight, then led him to another room where he would be tested for other possible developmental issues.
The Gibsonton woman worries her son might have speech challenges. She also speculates it might have something to do with being an only child at home, with no other children around him.
Saucedo and 70 other parents took their children to South Tampa Fellowship Church on Friday for a free screening set up to detect hearing, speech, language and developmental difficulties in pre-kindergarten age children.
The screenings are conducted by the Early Childhood Council of Hillsborough County and funded with taxpayer money through the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County.
Each month, a crowd of youngsters goes from one room to the next, in one part of the county or another, for tests that could help get them on the right track before they enter school.
“It’s fairly unique in the way we do the screening,” said Greg VanPelt, clinical director for the Early Childhood Council. “In most counties, it is just the school district. Because we have the Children’s Board to fund this, we are able to do it separately, but with a lot of in-kind help from Hillsborough County Public Schools.”
Every screening starts with a telephone call. Eighty percent of the parents who call are worried their child might have a speech or language development issue, VanPelt said. “In an average year, we may screen 1,500 to 1,800 children over the phone and 750-800 of them are scheduled for a complete screening.” Of those, most are offered services through one agency or another.”
Emily Cimino, coordinator of the Florida Diagnostic and Learning Resources System, or FDLRS Child Find program, said the screenings help determine which resources a child might need and whether they are eligible for the Exceptional Student Education, or ESE program in public schools. “We may be able to direct them to intervention services like speech and language therapy or occupational or physical therapy.”
Children as young as 3 years old can be placed in the school system’s Early Exceptional Learning Program, where they are put in a classroom at a nearby elementary school and receive training in preparation for kindergarten.
“Our goal is to get them on par with their peers for when they start kindergarten,” Cimino said.
Jennifer Gomez of Valrico brought in her 3-year-old son, Nico, for screening. “He has a brother with autism and I don’t know if he is imitating his brother or if he has speech issues, so I brought him to be tested,” she said.
Michael Walker, 3, of Carrollwood, sat quietly as Prevent Blindness Florida employee April Adkins checked his eyes. “He has some behavioral problems and I wanted to eliminate any issues before he gets in school,” said his mother, Mary Walker. She was referred to the screening through the Florida Kinship Center at the University of South Florida.
Schools Hearing Technician Julie Tindle turned down the air-conditioner and sat quietly as Andre Joseph, 5, who just started kindergarten, took his hearing test. Each time he heard a tone through the red and blue headphones, he eagerly raised his hand.
“He has a speech issue and he can’t pronounce a lot of his words and he stutters,” said his mom, Zenobia Troche of Town ‘N’ Country. “So, we’ll see.”
“The first year we did this, in 1986, we screened 23 children,” said Steve Martaus, executive director of the Early Childhood Council. “Now we do 65-70 a month. And speech and language continue to be the number one concern among parents.” While the screening sessions are not meant to catch disorders such as autism, the various tests can uncover other issues for which a child can be referred for services, he said.
To learn more about the program or to complete a pre-screening, visit www.ecctampabay.org or call (813) 837-7723.