Disability services for children and teenagers: understanding the terminology
Here’s a guide to some of the terms you’ll come across if you have a child with disability, an autistic child or a child with other additional needs.
These are things that help children do daily activities, take part in their communities and reach goals in life. Supports might include therapies that promote your child’s development, like physiotherapy, occupational therapy or speech therapy.
Your child can get supports and therapies in many ways and in different environments. For example, your child might be able to get support at home, child care or kindergarten, in a specialist setting or via telehealth.
Therapies and supports for young children are sometimes called early intervention or early childhood intervention.
Services or service providers
These are the people and organisations that offer therapies and supports. They might provide one therapy or several types, as well as other services and supports for your child and family, like respite services, social and recreational programs, or peer support programs.
Services might be specialist disability services. This includes services that provide specialised support for people with specific disabilities like autism, cerebral palsy, hearing loss and vision impairment.
Services might also be mainstream services that all families can use, like child and family health services, kindergartens, community health centres, regional parenting services, child care services, playgroups and occasional care.
Services fall into the following categories:
- Local, state and Australian government services and programs – these are usually provided free of charge.
- Not-for-profit services and programs – these are mostly funded by government and are free, low cost or partly subsidised.
- Private services and programs – you have to pay for these in full unless your child is eligible for financial support.
The people who work in disability services are generally professionals with qualifications and experience in areas like social work, case management, disability support, community development, psychology, education, speech pathology, audiology, orthoptics, physiotherapy and occupational therapy. They should also be experts in child development.
What disability services and service providers do
Disability service providers use different approaches, but almost all disability services and programs fall into one or more of the following categories.
Children and teenagers with disability, autistic children and teenagers, and children and teenagers with other additional needs often benefit from a multidisciplinary team of professionals working together. This means you might find you’re using services and programs from more than one of these categories.
These providers focus on teaching your child new behaviour and skills by using specialised, structured techniques. In this group, you might come across counsellors, psychologists, occupational therapists and developmental educators. A team of therapists might work with your child.
These providers tailor their teaching to your child’s developmental stage. They can help your child learn to form positive, meaningful relationships with other people, focusing on teaching social and communication skills. Psychologists and developmental educators are examples of this group.
These providers focus on skills development and learning in a playroom, classroom or similar learning environment. Examples are early childhood educators, special education teachers, education support staff and educational psychologists.
These providers include family counsellors and organisations that focus on the family as a whole. They also include developmental educators or other early childhood specialists, who can work with you, your child and your family.
These providers focus on treating the medical aspects of your child’s condition and managing any medicines your child uses. Examples are your GP and paediatrician or medical specialists like cardiologists, neurologists or orthopaedic surgeons.
Respite services give you a break from caring for your child. Respite can include the time your child spends with support workers or the time they spend in social or recreational programs or activities. It can be for a few hours or for longer periods. Your child can be cared for in your home or elsewhere.
These providers offer specific therapies that target your child’s particular needs. For example, if your child has difficulty with speech or communication, you might see a speech therapist. Other professionals you might come across include physiotherapists, occupational therapists and developmental educators.
You might also come across:
- complementary and alternative medicine, which includes therapies like acupuncture, homeopathy or massage therapy
- other therapies like music therapy and art therapy.
And you might find that some services and service providers take a combined approach. An example of this is professionals like speech therapists and psychologists working together and using both behavioural and developmental approaches.
If your child is autistic, our guide to therapies for autistic children offers reliable information about a wide range of therapies. Each guide gives an overview of a therapy, the research behind it and the approximate time and costs involved.
Finding disability services
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is a good place to start. You can phone the NDIS on 1800 800 110.
If your child is aged 0-8 years, you can get support through the NDIS’s early childhood early intervention approach. You’ll work with an early childhood partner who can:
- provide you with information
- connect you with mainstream services like community health services, playgroups or peer support groups
- help you get some early intervention, like speech therapy or occupational therapy.
If your child needs longer-term support, the early childhood partner can help you request NDIS access. If your child is eligible to join the NDIS, your NDIS early childhood partner will work with you to develop an NDIS plan for your child.
If your child is 9 years or older and eligible for the NDIS, you’ll meet with an NDIA planner or a local area coordination partner to develop an NDIS plan for your child. The plan will include NDIS-funded services and supports like therapies, technologies, equipment or modifications to your home.
You can read more about pathways to NDIS support.
Other good places to find out about services are:
- your GP or other health professional
- your local council
- early intervention service providers
- state government disability services or autism associations
- disability-specific organisations and websites
- MyTime groups – organised groups for parents, grandparents and carers of children and teenagers with disability and/or chronic illness
- other parents.