When her son Johnny was just a toddler, Natalie noticed that he was experiencing behavioral difficulties.

“At 3-years-old, I’d take him to the park to play but he wouldn’t play or socialize with other children. He’d throw sand at them. I’d tell him not to do that but he wouldn’t listen because he didn’t understand,” recalled the El Monte mom, who asked not to give her last name. “Or, he’d have a play car and he’d take all the little pieces apart. Sometimes, he would just rock himself back and forth.”

While his behavior was a telling sign that something was different, like many other parents, Natalie didn’t know that these were possible early signs of Autism. Luckily for her family, during that time, her son was attending Foothill Family Service, a nonprofit organization that offers a spectrum of services to support parents and their children, ages 0-5, during their critical developmental stages.

“It wasn’t until my son was in this program that his specialist sensed there was something more. She recommended that he get an early developmental screening at the San Gabriel/Pomona Regional Center. After testing him, they said he had mild Autism,” Natalie said. “Everything the specialist had previously pinpointed about his behavior was confirmed in the screening.”

Family Foothill Service was able to provide Johnny’s early developmental screening in full thanks to First Connections, which is funded through First 5 LA’s initiative, Early Identification and Intervention – Autism and Other Developmental Delays (EII).

The six community-based organizations that run the program are Foothill Family Service, Westside Children’s Center, AltMed Health Corporation, Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center, Northeast Valley Health Corporation and South Central Los Angeles Regional Center. Children’s Hospital Los Angeles provides the training and technical assistance for the program.

The EII initiative was originally funded by $2.5 million from First 5 LA in April 2014 for three years, ending in April 2017. Last month, First 5 LA Commissioners voted to waive Governance Guideline #7 and allocate an additional $1.25 million to extend the EII initiative through June 30, 2018. This action comes after First 5 LA staff identified potential alignment of EII with the developmental screening focus within First 5 LA’s new 2015-2020 Strategic Plan.

“Play therapy for children with disabilities closes the gaps and helps them achieve a high-functioning capacity” – Janet Orozco-Brown

By providing access to early developmental screenings that identify developmental delays, they link children and their families to culturally and linguistically appropriate early intervention services and supports. Over 11,000 children and their families have been serviced through First Connections since its inception.

First Connections Specialist Janet Orozco-Brown said providing this service is crucial for a child’s long-term success.

“A parent will come to you and say, ‘I think my child may have a developmental delay.’ Their child will then get an early screening,” Orozco-Brown explained. “If something shows up, these parents now have someone to walk them through this process every step of the way and will get that extra support. It’s very positive. Parents feel empowered when they see their child making progress.”

One important resource that Natalie’s son has access to at Foothill Family Service is the Play Project.

“The therapist plays games with Johnny and he’s learned how to interact with other kids. The play keeps him busy and focused,” Natalie said. “The play activities allow him to use his own imagination and think for himself. He pretends to drive a bus, cook in their play kitchen, or be a teacher reading books. He’s learned how to take turns and not get upset.”

“Play therapy for children with disabilities closes the gaps and helps them achieve a high-functioning capacity,” Orozco-Brown explained. “What Play Project does is help the child build circles of communication. You’re supporting social skills as you play and engage with them. You learn what the child prefers and integrate that into their play to get to the level where they feel comfortable. It’s about engagement, communication and problem-solving.”

First 5 LA Program Officer Karen Robertson-Fall stresses the significance of providing this program access to families.

“A strategic priority of First 5 LA is to improve health care systems so that more children receive developmental screening, as Johnny did,” Robertson-Fall said. “We know that early identification of developmental delays and increasing parent knowledge regarding healthy child development is critical. Our goal is to ensure that every child enters kindergarten ready to learn and succeed. Now Johnny has taken a step to being prepared to succeed in school and life.”

It can be difficult for parents navigating their child’s developmental journey. Said Orozco-Brown: “It’s about empowering parents by linking them to these important resources. We also hold workshops to educate parents on what their child’s rights are and how to advocate for what’s in their best interest.”

“I’m very grateful they’ve helped Johnny through everything,” Natalie said. “This has made a big difference. I’d tell other parents going through this that there are good people who are willing to help your child. You just have to have trust and believe.”