Developmentally disabled children are getting help

Posted: March 30, 2013

The Winchester Star

Jill Puffenbarger and her son Matthew, 6, read a story with Michael, 3, at their Stephens City home on Friday. Michael, who is autistic, received early intervention from the Infant and Toddler Connection of the Shenandoah Valley. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
Michael Puffenbarger, 3, and his mother Jill, of Stephens City, study the picture cards of food attached with Velcro on their pantry door. The cards help Michael to communicate with his family. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
Jill Puffenbarger uses bubbles in an exercise to persuade Michael to learn how to point. The exercise is one the family learned from Michael’s therapists from the Infant and Toddler Connection of the Shenandoah Valley, an early intervention care program for children with developmental disabilities.

WINCHESTER — Jill Puffenbarger began to see some developmental red flags when her son Michael was 18 months old.

He didn’t wave, and he didn’t look when someone pointed at an object.

At 22 months, Michael started to regress. He stopped looking at his parents when they said his name, stopped hugging and kissing them, and began to disassociate from his family.

“I went from being concerned to just plain scared,” Puffenbarger said.

That’s when she contacted the Front Royal-based Infant and Toddler Connection of the Shenandoah Valley, which aids families with children up to age 3 with social, emotional, cognitive, language or motor-skill disabilities.

The services are provided by Grafton, in partnership with the City of Winchester, assisting children in six localities including Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties.

For one year, the early intervention program sent a speech pathologist and an occupational therapist to Puffenbarger’s Stephens City home to help Michael — who was diagnosed as autistic — and his family cope with his disorder.

Through the program, therapists determined that Michael did not like to get dressed because he had a sensory issue, so they urged Puffenbarger to put her son’s clothes in her dryer to warm them before he put them on.

She was also taught to give him applesauce through a straw — the sucking sensation provides a calming effect.

In order to teach him how to point, the therapists blew bubbles at Michael, and to persuade him to show people what he wants, they created laminated pictures of various foods and activities that he can point to.

Since the intervention, the 3-year-old kisses and hugs his family and plays with his older brothers Matthew, 6, and Mason, 8 — who, according to Puffenbarger, have a wonderful attitude with Michael.

“Now he’s engaged, and it’s like he’s come back to us,” she said. “It means the world. You take those simple little things for granted.”

March is Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in Virginia, where 18,425 infants, toddlers and young children have developmental delays requiring early intervention services, and one in 91 children is estimated to have an autism spectrum disorder.

The Infant and Toddler Connection program starts with a referral from a hospital, local pediatrician or parent about a child in need. Staff members then assess the child and develop a service plan.

The program is optional.

Through a parent-coaching model, staff members work in the home twice a month (on average) for an hour at a time to teach the family strategies to help the child cope and improve on his or her developmental issue(s).

Currently, 240 children receive services with the local program. Within the past year, more than 500 children have been served.

“When you want to make a difference in brain development, you hit it early, from birth to 3,” said Sharlene Stowers, local system manager for the Infant and Toddler Connection. “That’s when they’re learning the most. They’re sponges. They soak up everything. There’s a lot that goes on in a little one’s brain at that time.”

Medicaid covers early intervention services, along with some private insurance. State and federal grant money is also available.

Stowers said the Infant and Toddler Connection of the Shenandoah Valley has a 100 percent compliance rate for creating an individualized family service plan within 45 days of screening, providing the timely initiation of services and referring children to local services.

Virginia has 40 Infant and Toddler Connection sites.

For more information, call the Connection at 540-635-2452 or visit

— Contact Rebecca Layne at