On June 20, 2016, hours after her birth in a West Texas hospital, Paisley was diagnosed with Down syndrome, the most common chromosomal condition in the United States that occurs in about 1 out of every 700 babies. Down syndrome impacts how the body and brain develop, resulting in different physical and learning abilities than what’s considered typical.
As educators, Paisley’s parents had some knowledge of Down syndrome, but they didn’t have experience with affected children during the crucial early developmental period. This is where HHSC’s Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program can help families like the Riggans to thrive.
ECI serves children from birth to 3 years old with developmental delays, disabilities or certain medical diagnoses. Services are provided based on the family’s need by 41 local contractors statewide.
“We teach the family how to work with their child,” said Trellanie Bostic, ECI information specialist. “We feel that the parent or guardian can be the child’s best teacher.”
Paisley started ECI services when she was 1 month old. She received physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and feeding therapy, specialized skills training and service coordination.
“We didn’t know what we needed to do for her, but ECI gave us guidance,” Jessica Riggan said.
Paisley’s first tasks were to become better at feeding and tracking objects. A speech pathologist worked with her family to help her drink milk more easily, and her early intervention specialist showed them how to hold up toys that made noise or lit up so she would visually follow them and strengthen her eyes, mental stamina and focus.
But Paisley couldn’t reach her full potential until she underwent surgery to repair a hole in her heart when she was 3 months old. Approximately 40 percent of children born with Down syndrome have congenital heart defects.
“I saw her grow from getting easily fatigued before the surgery to flying through her goals, and her personality really came out,” said Amanda Price, an ECI early intervention specialist at the Betty Hardwick Center in Abilene. “She has an amazing spirit, and her parents are great supports who encourage her to do things that are hard. They all made me feel like family — like Paisley was one of my kids.”
Price worked with the Riggans once a week for a year to cement the skills ECI providers taught them and to incorporate what they learned into daily life.
“Paisley likes blingy things,” Price said. “We used my silver watch with diamonds and charms to encourage her to crawl longer distances and to cruise, which is to pull yourself up using an object and take sidesteps left and right.”
Movement was a challenge for Paisley. She was able to sit up on her own at 9 months, on World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, 2017. To reach the milestone of walking, her therapist brought in a miniature treadmill with rails for her to hold as the therapist moved her feet in a walking motion.
When Paisley’s ankles caved inward due to low muscle tone, they used a walker with straps to support her while she walked on her own. When she was 18 months old, she was able to push herself up to stand, walk and keep her balance.
“Physical therapy was the toughest for her,” Jessica Riggan said. “But she enjoyed the interaction with her therapists. Each of them made an impact. I always told them, ‘Thank you so much,’ because I know she wouldn’t be near where she is now without them.”
While some movement milestones were major, others were subtler though equally important. An occupational therapist worked with Paisley on her pincer grasp — bringing her thumb and forefinger together to pick up objects. Before leaving the ECI program, she excelled at stacking blocks and rolling, catching and throwing a ball.
Six months before Paisley’s third birthday, ECI began preparing the Riggans for the next step — preschool. They referred her for special education testing and helped with the transition out of the ECI program.
Now 4 years old, Paisley enjoys going to school, playing soccer with her two older brothers, making up stories in her play kitchen and experimenting with makeup.
Inspired by Paisley and her journey, Jessica Riggan switched from working in general education to special education and started on her master’s degree to become an educational diagnostician.
“I would highly recommend ECI for families,” she said. “Early intervention is key, and the resources and knowledge that all the therapists bring is super helpful. Be present and help as much as you can.”
Anyone can refer a child for ECI services. If they’re found to have a 25 percent delay in one area (adaptive, cognitive, gross and fine motor, communication, social and emotional), they can take part in the program.
All visits with service providers take place in the child’s natural environment — such as their home, play area, relative’s house or day care — to coincide with their routine. In response to COVID-19, providers and clients wear personal protective equipment, providers are screened and telehealth visits are offered.
ECI is available in all 254 Texas counties. Connect with them though the Early Childhood Intervention Services website.